"When hearing aids aren’t enough, I passionately believe that everyone, whatever their age, who has the potential to benefit from this life-changing technology should have the opportunity to do so."
There are times when there is a newborn in the house that people may joke that they wish they had a button they could use to switch off the sound. But Nigel, a 59-year-old who became a grandfather twice this autumn, effectively has this option but would never dream of using it.
For Nigel, a senior procurement manager within the NHS in Wales, has been fitted with a Cochlear implant, which transforms him from being profoundly deaf into a three dimensional world in which he can hear every gurgle, coo and cries of his two newborn granddaughters Erin and Bessie.
It’s an emotional experience because when Nigel’s two sons – Anthony and Matthew – were born, he was profoundly deaf, living a life of silence without any hearing technology. Meningitis had taken his hearing when he was aged 16 and hearing aids were ineffective.
“It was a very emotional, but very happy experience to hold my first grandchild, Erin, and listen to her for the first time,” says Nigel, from Cardiff. “Holding her for the first time was every bit as special as when my own children arrived. She makes lovely little noises, like sighs of contentment while asleep and it’s such a lovely feeling to hold her and listen to this.
“Having Bessie come along within two weeks has just doubled the joy and while I do have the option of 'switching the CI off' if the noise gets too loud, I can’t ever imagine I would want to do that!,” says Nigel, who currently lives with his wife and his oldest son Anthony and his new family. Anthony, a doctor, recently returned to the area with his wife and is awaiting his own house to be ready.
Nigel had been deaf for 22 years before he was implanted in 1994, aged 39. It was only then that he heard his children’s and wife Helen’s voices for the first time. His boys were 10 (Anthony) and six (Matthew).
“The experience of being ‘switched on’ was without doubt one of the most amazing and life-changing experiences I have ever had and I can honestly say that from that day on I have never regretted the decision I made and only wish it had happened a lot sooner.
“Over the years I felt that I had missed out on so many things by not being able to hear,” says Nigel. “Easy relaxed conversations were difficult and not being able to hear my children laugh or cry, or hear their first sounds or first words was a daily reminder of what I had to live with. I was also aware that career prospects were limited as a direct result of being deaf and the frustration at not being able to achieve what I felt was my full potential was difficult to cope with at times.”
With hearing came promotion in work. Nigel is now able to use the telephone – often an indicator of whether somebody’s hearing is at a comfortable level – and he enjoys music, the theatre and cinema.
Nigel was in his final year of GCSEs when he contracted meningitis and went into hospital being able to hear and came out two weeks later in a world of silence. He completed his GCSEs, successfully taught himself to lipread and went on to do A-levels. After school he found work with the NHS as a contracts assistant and in his mid 20s he met and married his wife Helen.
It was not easy. “Being deaf there is a constant struggle to try and follow what is going on around you, the dependence on other people to always try and help you understand and the feeling of isolation and being cut off from everyday sounds and activities, especially your own voice,” says Nigel.
“Even the most successful lipreaders will not be able to follow every word that is being spoken and a large part of lipreading is almost ‘educated guess work’, reading facial expressions and mannerisms and generally trying to be one step ahead all the time.
“With this comes constant stress and concentration and it therefore follows that I did not go out of my way to engage in any conversations or activities that were ‘unnecessary’ which means that I constantly avoided and missed out on social events and gatherings, things that add so much to our enjoyment and quality of life.
“Even when I did make the effort it was difficult to enjoy a relaxed evening or social occasion with more than two or three people. It also meant that in practice someone had to repeat to me what was going on and this means that the spontaneity and fun is lost from many situations. This also puts a tremendous strain on the people closest to you whether that is a partner, family or friends as they are continuously trying to ensure that you are as involved as possible.
“Simple everyday situations become difficult and stressful, shop assistants who become impatient because you can’t follow what they are saying, being late for appointments because a station announcement has told you your train is on another platform but the screen has not been updated and people telling you ‘it doesn’t matter’ when you have not understood them the first time – despite the fact that it does matter to you! This common attitude means that you often attempt an answer when not being entirely sure of the question and end up having totally misunderstood what was being asked.
“I was often ‘jokingly’ told that I was lucky that I did not have to listen to something or someone and all I wanted to do was scream that I would give anything to be able to listen to that! In my case constant tinnitus also meant that I was as far from peace and quiet as you could get.”
Another benefit of having the Cochlear implant is that Nigel’s tinnitus, which started when he lost his hearing aged 16, is much less bothersome. At its worse it sounded like a jet engine, says Nigel, which could be “extremely unsettling”. Now he says: “Having the CI has greatly improved the situation as it means your brain has lots of other things to listen to.”
And so receiving a Cochlear implant, which took place at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff has been life-changing, with the benefits improving as time went on.
Nigel remembers in those first early weeks and months finding it difficult to learn to hear again. “The constant amount and level of sound was at times overwhelming and it was only as I began to distinguish different sounds and gradually learn to hear again that everything started to fit into place.
“I began to understand speech more clearly and in a relatively short space of time was able to understand and have conversations without lipreading. Someone said to me on seeing me for the first time after having had my implant switched on, ‘the stress has gone from your face’ and that is exactly what it felt like, almost overnight, I was back in the hearing world and my confidence grew daily with my growing ability to hear and understand.
“One of the most startling discoveries for me at this time was how much sound, as distinct from speech, enhanced my life and added to my sheer enjoyment and quality of life. As someone who needed to lipread my whole focus was on words and understanding them and it is natural therefore that my early measure of success of my implant was focused on speech perception.
“However as I became more relaxed and familiar with my new hearing I started to rediscover the joy of just listening – a walk in the park now meant birds singing, children laughing and playing and people chatting away nearby.
“To know someone has entered a room or is able to attract your attention means that you can relax and not have to keep wondering if you are missing something. The sheer joy of being able to hear my children, to listen to them learning to read, to hear them in their school concerts or their first attempts at mastering their violin (soon thankfully abandoned!) all are immeasurable and yet improve my and their quality of life beyond recognition.”
Soon after receiving his implant Nigel became a founder member of the South Wales Cochlear implant Support Group. He later became chair of the National Cochlear implant Users Association and a trustee and is currently chair of Hearing Link www.hearinglink.org
“I passionately believe that everyone who has the potential to benefit from this life-changing technology should have the opportunity to do so,” he says.
“To say that the first thing I do each day is to put on my implant doesn’t convey the feeling of exhilaration I have each and every time, as I marvel at how lucky I am to have this ability to hear restored, there are simply no waking moments that I do not have my implant switched on if possible.”
The information on this website is for educational purposes, and is not intended to replace medical advice. Please consult a hearing healthcare professional to diagnose or treat a hearing or health problem.