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Switching on my hearing - William's cochlear implant story

Guest Guest | 09:50 UK time, Wednesday, 9 January 2013

William with his head bandaged, in a hospital bed

William recovering after implant surgery

Thirty-five-year-old William Mager has been profoundly deaf since birth. He uses sign language and lip-reading to communicate. In November, after many years of thinking about it, he chose to have a cochlear implant surgically fitted. The device was activated just before Christmas and since then he has been learning how to interpret the sounds and impulses that it feeds to him.

"Your son will never have a reading age better than that of an eight-year-old, but he can be happy doing a simple, undemanding job. He won't be a high achiever."

This is what a doctor told my mother after I was diagnosed as deaf.

I've spent most of my life trying to prove that doctor's prognosis wrong. I like to think that I'm succeeding.

I work for the BBC, I've made several award-winning films, married an amazing woman with whom I've had a son, and we have a home filled with love - and far too many children's toys.

Despite being very happy with my life, I recently took the rather big decision to have an operation with lots of associated risks to remedy a hereditary condition I've got - deafness. I chose to have a cochlear implant.

I went under the knife in December. They cut behind my left ear, lifting the whole earlobe up like the bonnet of a car, drilling a tiny hole through the skull between the facial and taste nerves into my inner ear. They inserted a silicone circuit board, magnet and an electrode array directly into my cochlear.

After checking it was all connected correctly, they sewed me up and sent me home four hours later, though it wasn't to be switched on for a few weeks until the swelling went down.

The surgery was the start of a journey that I hope might lead to an improvement in my hearing.

There are lots of reasons I wanted a cochlear implant but chief among these was a deterioration in the little hearing I had been born with. Lip-reading was getting more difficult and the world felt like it was receding from me.

Cochlear implants electrically stimulate the inner ear to create a simulation of sound. It's not the same as hearing.

I've never been able to hear the radio. I've never watched television without subtitles. Would I be able to when the device gets switched on?

The staff at the hospital tried their best to manage my expectations of what an implant could bring me. They said that the best I could hope for was to understand speech a little better, and to be able to identify environmental sounds in day-to-day life.

I privately hoped for more. Perhaps I would be able to understand speech? Perhaps I could listen to the radio, or the telephone? My expectations were spiralling beyond a reasonable level. Perhaps because of that, the day they activated my implant was horrible.

"The switch on is usually the worst day of most people's lives." The audiologist told me this just before turning the device on, two weeks before Christmas, adding: "The only thing I can tell you gets better."

The first time it was activated, it felt like an electric shock in my head, nothing at all like sound. It affected me so badly I went grey and began to tremble.

After switching on all the channels and checking they were working, they sent me home with the implant at a very low volume and with me wondering if I'd done the right thing. It was the worst day of my life, just as the audiologist had predicted.

After day one, the electric shocks started to sound like pulses and the pulses gradually started to become actual sounds.

After nearly a month, I'm now hearing new things that I'd been deaf to since birth, even with hearing aids. Music, the TV, even my son's voice all sound different to before.

Life with the implant is better than it was with the hearing aid, but also worse. I'm struggling to understand people as I adjust, and learn to hear all over again. I don't really feel like my old self yet. But still, things are happening every day that give me hope.

On Sunday I was working through my listening homework given to me by the audiologist - it's a list of environmental everyday sounds. My mum and I went around her flat opening drawers, rattling coat hangers, ticking all the items off.

We reached the telephone. I'd never ever been able to hear the phone at all. Not even with hearing aids, or with amplifiers - it just sounded garbled and quiet to me.

I picked it up and called a number. I could hear the dial tone, the ring tone, and the beep of the answering machine.

I then went into another room and rang my mum. I asked: "What time will lunch be ready?" I just about heard her short response: "Two o'clock."

My mum and I had spoken on the phone for the first time ever.

I'm trying to keep expectations low - but after only a month, there's still hope. Instead I'm quietly defying the prognosis of the medical profession once more.

I'm never going to be hearing. I'm never going to stop being deaf. But hopefully this little computer that now lives in my head will make life a bit easier.

When people talk about a cochlear implant journey, it implies a destination. I don't think the destination is as important as the journey itself, but it's going to be a fun ride.

"I think this is the first time we've actually danced in time to the music."
My wife to me, New Year's Eve 2012.

• The above audio interview with William is taken from January's Ouch! talk show, a lively monthly programme about disability life. It's available for free right now as a podcast and to download or stream from the BBC website, via iTunes and more. The presenters are Rob Crossan and Kate Monaghan.

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