The gift of sound

Tauranga teacher Charlotte de Jong is enjoying being able to hear again thanks to her cochlear implant.

It’s the little things that give Charlotte de Jong her greatest delight. Hearing her two boys chatter in the back seat of the car, listening to music and watching a movie without sub-titles. Her cochlear implant has been life-changing.

The government announced last week that it would put an extra $6.5 million into the adult cochlear implant programme for 2017/2018 – taking the number of funded cochlear implants for adults from 40 to 100.

Charlotte, a teacher at Selwyn Ridge School in Welcome Bay, received her cochlear implant 12 months ago and is pleased to hear that more deaf adults will benefit from the gift of sound she has received.

“It’s pretty awesome. It’s absolutely life-changing. It’s a shame the funding is not extended past 2017/2018 because there are 224 people on the waiting list. There’s no way the extra money is going to clear it. It really needs to be ongoing.”

Charlotte had perfect hearing as a child but it began to deteriorate in her teens. There was no real explanation for it, but hearing loss runs in her family – her 5-year-old son Lucas also wears hearing aids.

A typically self-conscious teen, she initially refused to wear her hearing aids. “They were awful then; they were ugly. They’ve come so far now which is really cool.”

By the age of 22 she was teaching full-time and the hearing aids became a necessity. “By then I couldn’t be without them.”

It wasn’t until she had Lucas that her hearing really started to deteriorate.

“When he was about six weeks old I had sudden hearing loss on my right side. I got better hearing aids but when I came back to teaching after my maternity leave I started to notice I wasn’t picking up as much as I used to.”

Charlotte’s audiologist referred her to the Northern Cochlear Implant Programme.

“By that time I was lip-reading a lot of conversation and a lot of people didn’t realise the extent of my hearing loss. I don’t think I realised myself because you use so many other cues to get through the day. I was going home pretty exhausted and my family bore the brunt of that.”

It was with “absolute relief” that Charlotte got her cochlear implant 12 months ago.

A cochlear implant is an electronic medical device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear by sending sound signals to the brain.

A battery-powered sound processor is worn behind the ear, capturing sound and turning it into digital code. The implant converts the digitally-coded sound into electrical impulses and sends them along the electrode array placed in the inner ear (cochlear).

The implant’s electrodes stimulate the cochlea’s hearing nerve, which then sends the impulses to the brain where they are interpreted as sound.

The internal and external components are connected via magnets.

“If I got one of the really strong magnets from my fridge it would stick to my head. The boys tested that several times!” she laughs.

Two weeks after the operation to insert the implant, Charlotte was ‘switched on’, however it was several weeks before she could hear properly.

“It was just like electronic noise at first, gradually turning into something that sounded like someone speaking through an electronic voice changer.”

“The more I wore it the more used to it I became. You have to commit to half an hour’s practice a day; things like listening to people talking behind you, using the phone, which is pretty daunting when you’ve avoided using a phone for a while.”

After three weeks she could hear her boys chattering away in the back seat of the car and was able to go to the supermarket on her own.

“I remember standing at a light switch flicking it on and off because I could hear the click.” Ironically, pen-clicking by her pupils now drives her “insane.”

With her hearing restored, Charlotte became acutely aware of all the sounds around her such as a neighbour using a weed-eater or the oven timer going off.

“I had to ask my husband and boys what the noise was. It’s amazing all those things we take for granted.”

As well as the gift of sound, Charlotte’s cochlear implant has allowed her to keep working as a teacher.

“I wouldn’t be teaching this year if I didn’t have my implant. I don’t feel I would have been doing justice to the job.”

Charlotte is also more social as a result of being able to hear again.

“I felt like I was withdrawing beforehand. I remember going over to a friend’s to watch the rugby and there was all this banter happening but there was no way I could keep up with it. It was really lonely. I can go to a large social gathering now without feeling anxious.”

The most rewarding change for Charlotte has been able to interact more with her sons Cameron, 9, and Lucas.

“Hearing the boys arguing or playing in the bath and being able to hear their conversation from another room is amazing. They can whisper to me again. There was no whispering before.”

“It’s almost like you can start living again.”