Back in 1997, when I decided to go ahead and have a cochlear implant the procedure was still relatively new and was classed by the NHS as an "experimental procedure". This meant that it did not receive automatic funding and each local Health Authority had to decide how many such procedures they should fund each year. In July 1997 I received a letter from the Yorkshire Cochlear Implant Service saying that they had been told by my local Health Authority that they could not fund any more operation during the current year and therefore I would have to wait before I could be operated on. The disappointment served as a harsh reminder that, at the time, NHS waiting lists were nothing more than a disguised form of rationing. The situation has improved considerably since - and cochlear implants have now been re-classified out of the "experimental treatment" category - but eternal vigilance is required to ensure that we never slip back into a similar situation again.
By the following February, new finance had become available. At the time I was circulating a record of my attempts to escape deafness to a network of friends via e-mail (a very early type of Blog I suppose). I still have some of the posts, here is the one from Thursday 5th February 1998.
"The fax came today. It came whilst I was out of the room. I eventually found it sandwiched between two European Union press releases about structural funds or set-aside rates or some such things. "We have heard verbally ..... funding now available .... operate on the 11th March". It had a strange effect. Good news, yes, but no joy, not the kind of wild abandon you feel when you get a letter saying you have got a job, won the lottery, or whatever. Nevertheless, a feeling that it changes things, starts a new chapter, sets a new perspective. Five weeks. Five weeks and they will open me up, insert wires, microchips, God knows what else, and the scenery will change.
The prospect of a changed landscape leaves me slightly disorientated, unable to slot thoughts into rational boxes. So I go for a few beers in the hope that this mist will have cleared tomorrow. In the pub, the clock over the bar is perpetually stilled - stalled forever at ten minutes past closing time. My hearing stalled in 1984. Can it be restarted? Who knows."
As things turned out, I didn't have the operation on the 11th March. A slight infection delayed things and it wasn't until the 25th March that I was wheeled into the operating theatre, already slightly spaced-out from the effects of some pre-operative happy pill. The surgeon - a delightful man called Chris Raines - told me there would be a slight delay as the anaesthetist had got lost but not to worry as we could usefully spend the time sketching out the design of the Implant Services' website which I had volunteered to put together for them. So there I lay, on a table, wearing an operating gown, discussing html boxes and embedded images, wondering whether it was some kind of dream or not.
Returning to my e-mail posts, the one for the 25th March includes the following:
"I vaguely recall regaining consciousness. Isobel was in the room along with Chris Raines. They were looking at photographs and laughing. I tried to ask what day it was but somehow couldn't manage it. I tried to work out why on earth they should be looking at photographs but before I could find an answer I fell into unconsciousness again"
Later I discovered that the photographs they were looking at were a series of Polaroids of the inside of my head which had been taken during the operation (a rather poor quality copy of one of them is attached to this post). After a couple of days I was strong enough to be allowed home wearing a magnificent head bandage which made me look rather like Basil Fawlty in one of the episodes of Fawlty Towers. The operation had fitted the internal parts of the implant. There would now be a wait of five weeks - to allow the post-operative swelling to fade - before they issued me with the external parts of the system and performed the great switch-on. I was left with a sore head, horrendous tinnitus, and the most harrowing five week wait I had ever had to experience.