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Case studies

Margaret Messham's story

Margaret Messham, from Sunninghill, Ascot, was left with severe hearing loss after a bout of labyrinthitis. Margaret subsequently had a cochlear implant in September 2014 at the John Radcliffe Hospital.

Photo of Margaret Messham and her beloved dogs
Margaret Messham

On the day this photo was taken, Margaret Messham was very excited about a parcel that had just arrived. Inside was a small, but important box that marked the next step in Margaret's journey to better hearing - a wireless phone clip to help her communicate more easily on the phone.

Until a year ago, the 74-year-old grandmother relied on text messaging to stay in contact with friends and family, and is thankful that at least she went almost deaf in the age of mobile phone technology.

Usually for many women of Margaret's age, finding it harder to hear is a gradual process. Age related hearing loss (known as presbycusis) affects two thirds of people aged over 70. However, Margaret's deafness was sudden.

Two years ago, she was struck with a severe bout of labyrinthitis - an inner ear infection. "I lost my balance and could hardly stand up. When I went to bed, I had a terrible noise in my ears. When I woke up in the morning, I couldn't hear anything."

Margaret had first suffered from labyrinthitis in her 60s which left her hearing impaired and reliant on hearing aids. She was able to stay working in an accountancy firm, spending a lot of time on the phone, until she retired at 68. But after the last bout of labyrinthitis, she was told there was little hearing aids could do for her. "I felt very isolated as I could not communicate with anybody. I couldn't hear my own voice or listen to music. I didn't enjoy going out, and if I did, I couldn't wait to get home.

"If I went to the shops, I couldn't hear what the shop assistant was saying. People can be so rude and intolerant when they have to repeat themselves because you can't hear. I wanted to tell them that my hearing is not perfect but there is nothing wrong with my brain."

She says life would have been intolerable if it wasn’t for her rescue dogs - Prince, a Papillon, and Bibi, a Maltese. Their barking and body language signalled a visitor, so Margaret knew if anyone was knocking at her door or walking round the back of her home. Margaret also felt safer taking them for their daily walks.

"If someone came up too close behind me when I was out walking, the dogs would make me aware. Especially Prince, he would turn and growl. Without the dogs, I could have been taken unawares and that would have been very frightening. Life would have been awful without them."

When viral damage was confirmed, Margaret's audiologist referred her to the John Radcliffe Hospital implant centre to be assessed for a cochlear implant. She met the criteria and was put on a six month waiting list, but a cancellation meant she had the operation at two weeks' notice.

"I was a bit frightened at first as I had let my imagination run away with me and thought the operation would be near my brain, but I needn't have worried as my surgeon reassured me that hundreds of cochlear implants are done every year and it is a safe procedure with low risks. I had every confidence in him which made me quite calm as the operation approached. I was surprised I only had to stay in overnight afterwards."

Margaret had her operation in September 2014 and her implant was switched on four weeks later. 'It was like a miracle' she said of the switch on. 'Although the sounds are quite robotic at first, you get used to it quite quickly. You have to persevere with it. I can’t complain as it has made a huge difference to my life.'

As only one cochlear implant could be fitted, Margaret’s hearing hasn’t been restored fully as she is still deaf in one ear due to the labyrinthitis. She finds it easier to hold a conversation when talking with someone face to face. Every so often, she realises that she is talking too loudly and makes a determined effort to speak quietly - a throwback she says from when she went almost deaf and couldn’t hear her own voice.

Occasionally, she has a reminder of what life was like before her cochlear implant operation. 'I forgot to put it on the other day when I took the dogs out for a walk in the morning. Someone came up to me, but I couldn’t hear a word they were saying.'

Margaret says she is lucky to have this chance of hearing again at her age and knows that, thanks to the continued advancements of cochlear technology, she now has an advantage over her peers. 'The great news is that I will still be able to hear even if I reach 100.' For now, she can’t wait to read the instructions and work out how to use her new wireless phone clip so she can enjoy a conversation with friends as “texting can be so frustrating.”

Pamela Reynolds' story

Pamela Reynolds, 78, a retired teacher , had her cochlear implant operation on 18 January 2016 at the John Radcliffe Hospital, and was switched on two weeks later.

Pamela Reynolds

"That’s amazing." Those were the first words spoken by Pamela the moment after switch-on. "I expected to hear sound, but didn't think I would hear actual words", she added just seconds later.

A few weeks on from the switch-on, Pamela is still amazed at the amount she can hear.

Pamela went deaf due to age-related hearing loss. Before her operation, she had been totally deaf for nearly three years, and had struggled with hearing aids for more than 20.

Although it's early days since her operation both Pamela and her husband Robin have noticed a huge difference to their lives.

"Even from day one, the moment I came home, I have not had to have people write a single word down for me. It has given me my confidence back and I can already talk to people now on a one to one basis," she says.

Until now, Pamela has always carried a pen and paper in her handbag so her husband and friends can write down questions and communicate with her. At the family home in Chesham, her daughter taught her the signing alphabet, and her son used a voice recognition programme on his iPad to convert speech into text so that his mum could join in conversations.

"Tremendous - that's the word for it," says Robin, describing his wife's cochlear implant. "We can talk normally - it is a different world now for both of us."

A lifelong bird watcher, Pamela realised she had a problem with her hearing when she saw a Skylark but realised she couldn't hear it sing.

That was when she was 40, but she carried on as a teacher of PE and Biology, managing to do playground duty, leading inter-school matches and teaching in the classroom as normal.

It wasn't until she reached her early 50s that she realised she couldn't hear high notes.

"I suddenly noticed I couldn't hear my watch ticking, so I went to the GP and was given hearing aids," she says. "But in those days hearing aids were no use as they didn't pick up the high notes, just exaggerated the noises I could already hear so when a cup was put onto the table it made me jump."

Later, she moved onto digital hearing aids which worked better, but her hearing still gradually declined.

Five years ago she went back to her audiologist for help, but was told that because she was coping there was nothing else that could be done. Naturally resilient, Pamela continued to do the things she loved, such as playing tennis at her local club and going to church, but made adjustments to adapt to her increasing deafness.

"I tried to stay positive and have had good support from my family, the tennis club, church and friends who were always ready to write things down for me. And I felt fortunate that I could continue to enjoy the countryside and playing tennis.

"But I had to step down as a tennis club captain because I couldn't do the last minute phone calls to find match partners. And although I still went regularly to church because I like all the people there, I could no longer hear them or the music or understand the sermon."

Within 18 months of seeing the audiologist, Pamela was totally deaf. Characteristically, she didn't give up, went back to her GP and says "that is when I finally made it to the John Radcliffe".

Despite meeting the criteria for a cochlear implant, Pamela's first operation, booked for August 2015, had to be postponed because of a blip during her heart monitor check. Further investigations showed nothing wrong and Pamela thinks it was "white coat syndrome" because she was so anxious about the operation.

"I have never had anything wrong with me before or been into hospital, so I was quite anxious, but if I had to do the operation again I wouldn't be so worried. All the staff at the John Radcliffe were very supportive throughout."

A few weeks on from the switch-on, Pamela is still amazed at the amount she can hear.

"I had said to myself before the operation, if I can just hear sound I would be lucky, but I didn't think I would hear actual words straight away and certainly didn’t expect to hear as much sound so soon."

The noises are not how she remembers them, and she says at the moment they sound quite synthetic. For example, the sound of water pouring into a cup sounds like a rattle, she says, and the crunching of a newspaper "sounds like nails going over a rasp".

In fact, there are times when Pamela gets quite tired from all the sounds and says she has to 'ration' the amount she hears. So, she still uses subtitles on the television to give her brain a rest. But when she is not feeling tired she tries to understand what is being said, using the subtitles to fill in the gaps - "I can usually hear people with good diction such as Michael Portillo".

And there was no stopping her having a two hour conversation with her son soon after the switch-on.

"He didn't have to dictate into his computer - it was wonderful as I haven't been able to chat with him like that for nearly three years."

A week after the switch-on, Pamela went to church to see her friends.

"I could hear the organ and the prayers too, and hear people singing so I could join in. It was terrific."

She is also looking forward to playing tennis again when the weather warms up.

"I probably won't wear the processor while playing as I like to play volleys near the net and would be frightened of knocking it off, but I will look forward to the post-match tea afterwards knowing that I can now join in conversations."

Pamela says she feels like is finally "back in the world". As her hearing progressively gets better, she is hoping that soon she will be able to listen to bird song once again.

Stephan's Story

Stephan is a young man who was born profoundly deaf in South Africa and was recently implanted as an adult in Oxford. He speaks Afrikaans and English.