Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Day A Waterfall Crept Up Behind Me

I have to go to Bradford this afternoon to be interviewed for a film they are making about cochlear implants. There is no point scanning the TV and cinema listings to catch a sight of the finished product, it is simply a little film being made by some speech and language therapy students to help intended recipients of cochlear implants know what to expect. But I am delighted to be taking part in order to share my experiences, and, in particular, my memories of that day 17 years ago when hearing was returned to my life. In putting some things together for the filming I came across the diary I kept at the time. Many years ago I shared some of this on News From Nowhere, but I am going to share a little bit of it again now - not to remind you, but to remind me.

At The Switch On : The GLW, the Lad, and the Technical Wizard
Having been completely deaf for many years, in March 1998 I had an operation to insert a cochlear implant, a wonderful digital and electronic device that promised the prospect of sound once more. Six long weeks had to pass between the operation and finally switching all the electrodes on and discovering what the results were. That was known as "Switch-On" and for me it took place on Thursday 30 April 1998. Here is some of what I wrote the next day

The problem was I had no idea what to expect. My worst fear - one that has been gradually gathering momentum for the last few days - was that there would be nothing. My best hope was that I would once again be able to "hear" sound, and after a good few months of practice, I would begin to be able to translate it into something more meaningful.
The technical wizard (Salim) explained that the first thing we would do is to switch on each of the 22 channels (each channel stimulates a different electrode) one by one. Keys were depressed and everyone watched the screen expectantly. I sat there with a dazed look on my face. rigid with fear. Nothing seemed to happen. More keys were depressed. I began to accept my worst fears as reality. Then, all of a sudden, I heard it. A tone - quite pleasant - hovering somewhere in my head. Fighting with the constant tinnitus at first. But this was Tyson at his best versus Bruno at his worst. No contest. The tinnitus quickly gave way.

I could hear again. A single tone. But what the hell, it was noise, it was working. The computer stepped up the strength of the signal until we found a good comfortable level and then we moved on to the next channel. Again, I could hear. My God, two frequencies! Channel followed channel. At the medium and high frequencies I have had no hearing for 13 years and the whole process was unbelievable. Such frequencies could not exist surely. Each time I felt that we had reached the limit of perceptual hearing, a higher frequency kicked in, until all 22 channels had been tested. All 22 worked.

At this point I would have been quite happy to have packed up and gone home. Just to hear those odd noises was quite enough. Why go further and spoil things. Salim gave me a card to read saying that he would now get the computer to switch on all the channels at once. This was "Switch On". The most extraordinary sensation passed through my brain. Salim said (to Isobel and Alex who were sat there) "Of course it will take some time to find the right settings". I said, "No these seem to be fine". Suddenly we all sat dumbstruck as we realised what had happened. I had heard him.

"Can you hear me" they were all saying at once. I was too shocked almost to answer. A voice - completely unrecognisable to me - answered "Yes". I had read about what the "sound" would sound like at first. Micky Mouse most people said. Near, but not quite. More Minnie Mouse on speed. I had - in my more optimistic moments - expected other people to sound like this, but what I had never realised was that I too would sound like that. But who cares. I could hear. I could bloody-well hear. Not perfect, not everything. If everyone spoke at once it confused me. If people spoke too fast I lost the thread. It all sounded strange. But I could sodding-well hear.

Everyone was either grinning or crying. I was shaking. We spent a bit of time tuning the various settings and Salim explained all the bits of the various mechanisms (he had an Indian accent, how remarkable. I had forgotten people had accents). I listened to myself again and realised that I had picked up an American accent from somewhere. Good God, after fifteen years of silence I had come back with an American accent!

We took a break and I escaped outside to smoke my pipe (really to just try and come to terms with what had happened). Strange sounds all around me. A waterfall crept up behind me - no it was not a waterfall it was a car. A door squeaked somewhere - no it was a bird singing. I came back into the building and heard my footsteps on the concrete stairs. They echoed. That is not sound - raw sound - that is quality sound. I will never walk down a corridor again without thinking it is one of the most beautiful sounds on earth. To get back into the Cochlear Implant Centre there is one of those dreadful doors with a voice-box (the kind that had driven me mad for the last 15 years). I pressed the button and heard the mechanical buzz of the speaker. I asked to come in and heard the bolt shoot back.

We did more tests. Nobody could quite believe it. I certainly couldn't. Eventually we came home. More sounds - the noise of the car, the clicking of the indicator, the annoying sound the computer makes when a programme is activated. The sound of Alexander's voice. A dog barking.

It will take some time yet. My two objectives for the coming months are the telephone and music. All the books say that "eventually", with practice, you can begin to get a bit of these. Give me a week - or two.

I feel grateful to all sorts of people. To the technical expertise of those at the Yorkshire Cochlear Implant Centre. To all my friends for coping so well with my deafness for so long. To Isobel and Alexander for their encouragement and their belief. But perhaps most of all to the NHS (like me it is 50 this year) for enabling me to experience this. But there are still people waiting. Worse still, there are areas of the country which will not fund adult cochlear implants for financial reasons. No deaf person should ever be denied the pleasure I am experiencing just because we are unwilling to provide the financial resources necessary.


  1. Do you still have the tinnitus?

    1. Only when I think about it. The difference now is that I have other sounds to help drown it out, The misery of complete deafness was not silence - sometimes I would have paid a fortune for silence - but that there were no other sounds to contend with the tinnitus. Compared to tinnitus, most things are like sweet music

    2. Calling Alan Burnett on Channel 2 - do you receive, over?

    3. No response - better switch to Channel 16.

  2. This is a wonderful post Alan. So vivid. I wonder if it is still the case that adult cochlear implants are not funded on the NHS.

    1. I am pleased to report Jenny that they are now funded. Implants used to be grouped with a number of other treatments which were more or less experimental and it was up to local Health Authorities to decide whether to fund them or not (I had to wait a fairly long time before funding was agreed for mine). Now they are mainstream and funding is normally automatic - but I suppose that is no guarantee for the future.

    2. No, but it is good to hear that they now offer them everywhere.

  3. I am certain your interview will go well, thank you for sharing your experience. What was the cause of your deafness? My husbands Grandmother was deaf from TB and refused to learn to sign so it was difficult to communicate with her everything had to be written down.
    It is a miracle what they can do for the hearing impaired today:)

  4. Awesome story. I'm glad you told it.

  5. You sent a little thrill through me. What a grand story. I am a little deaf, from old age. The hearing aids sort it out, but I can be places where the noise is confusing and words not distinguishable.
    But, I really wanted to mention my niece and her husband, both deaf from infancy, because of disease.My niece functions very well in the hearing world; she is a cashier at a big box store. They live in and are well supported by the deaf community. Both of them say adamantly they would not have implants; deaf is who they are. Perhaps never knowing speech has contributed to that mind set.

  6. I remember getting an oh so excited email from Edwin telling me your treatment was successful. And then when I finally met you I completely forgot that was you!

    For the benefit of other readers I shared a bed with the GLW in 1978(ish) and she was far too polite to order me not to starfish (given half a chance I will take up ¾ or possibly even ⅞ of the bed). But I never met Alan until about 2012.


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