Making a noise about cochlear implants 

25/02/2016 00:00 
Not being able to hear music was UCLH patient Liz Arendt’s greatest loss when she became deaf. Although she wore a hearing aid, could lip read, communicate through email and text, and had a Hearing Dog to alert her to the doorbell or smoke alarm, nothing could compensate for the sound of music.
 

The retired physics teacher promised herself that if she could ever hear again, she would fulfil her dream of going to Glyndebourne. Since having her second cochlear implant in 2006, she has been to numerous concerts and operas, and visited Glyndebourne at least half a dozen times.

“I can now hear music perfectly - even tunes I didn’t know before I went deaf,” she says.

Liz is sharing her story to help mark International Cochlear Implant Day. The Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital, part of UCLH, is one of several implant centres celebrating how this technology has changed the lives of patients who have severe to profound hearing loss.

Around 10,000 people in the UK have a cochlear implant, including children who generally have two. However, fewer than 10 per cent of adults who are severely or profoundly deaf and who would qualify for a cochlear implant on the NHS have one.

Liz, 71, from St Albans, was profoundly deaf in both ears. She had her first implant in May 2004, and the second in May 2006, both at the RNTNEH.

“Because of the cochlear implants, I can lead a normal life again like a normal fully hearing person. If anyone gets the chance to do this, I would say go for it.”

Her story started when she became partially deaf following a bout of scarlet fever at the age of eight, although she managed school life without a hearing aid.

“I instinctively sat at the front of the class so I could hear the teacher, and I got by because I learnt to lip read.”

But when she applied for a teaching post, a medical examination revealed she was partially deaf and so she began to wear hearing aids. However, Liz’s hearing continued to deteriorate, made worse when she was struck with Meniere ’s disease the summer of 1996. Despite ever more powerful hearing aids, Liz began to struggle.

“I had to get someone to answer the phone for me in the staff room. I managed in the classroom because I could lip read, but if I asked a pupil to repeat an answer and they said ‘it doesn’t matter’, that really bothered me.”

When she returned to her job as head of physics and director for studies at the City of London School for Girls following a six-month sabbatical, she “found it difficult to tune in again”. She couldn’t do playground duties and struggled to chair meetings.

The crunch came when a practical physics experiment in the classroom to burn fuels got out of hand.

“I couldn’t hear the children shout ‘Miss, the lab’s on fire!’”

Although the fire was quickly contained and no one was hurt, the incident prompted Liz to seek more help for her deafness which by now had deteriorated to 30 per cent.

She was given a Hearing Dog, a black Labrador called Ruffles, to alert her to the doorbell and smoke alarms. She retired from teaching and moved house from London to St Albans, quickly becoming an advocate for Hearing Dogs for Deaf People and setting up the Hertfordshire and North London branch, of which she is now chairwoman.

But her hearing grew worse and Liz began to withdraw from her usually busy social life. She stopped going to concerts and sold her piano.

“I am used to being independent, but I stopped going to parties and social events as I could not join in.”

In 2003, she was under the care of the audiology team at the Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital and was recommended for a cochlear implant on her right ear.

“I was told the outcome would be better on this ear as it had some residual hearing but I didn’t want to risk losing all my hearing so asked for the implant to be done on the left ear which was totally deaf.”

The surgery took place in May 2004 and Liz was amazed how straightforward the operation and her recovery was.

“I woke up from the operation with a turban of a bandage on my head, but went home the next day just with a sticking plaster.”

Four and half weeks later, Liz went with a friend and Ruffles for the switch on.

“At first, voices sounded a bit like Donald Duck under water, but when my friend called my name from behind me, I couldn’t believe I could hear - it was a miracle. I could hear cars coming when out walking with Ruffles, and hear the sound of birds.”

Liz was so impressed with the cochlear implant that she decided to spend her own money to buy a second cochlear implant for her right ear as the NHS will only fund one implant per adult.

“I had a rainy day fund, but felt that my rainy day had now come. It cost about £27,000 but I think it was money well spent as the combination of the two implants has given me better hearing and I can use the phone.”

Her second operation took place in May 2006 and this time Liz went on her own for the implant to be switched on.

“The first thing I did when I got back in my car was switch on the radio. It’s always tuned to Classic FM and I couldn’t believe I could hear the music so clearly -I think it was Beethoven’s sixth symphony.”

Having two implants has given Liz the confidence to immerse herself in her charity work, running meetings, and giving talks and demonstrations. She was awarded the MBE in 2007 for her tireless work for Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. When Ruffles died that same year, she was given another working dog, a gentle golden retriever called Maple. “It was love at first sight,” says Liz.

Although her two cochlear implants means Liz can hear, when she removes the processors at night she is profoundly deaf and needs her hearing dog to alert her to any danger.

During the day, she continues to work with Maple, getting the dog to respond to sounds of the phone and doorbell. Maple is one of only 10 Hearing Dogs in the country that is allowed to do demonstrations, a frequent occurrence as Liz continues to raise awareness about Hearing Dogs for Deaf People.

She is also a strong advocate for Cochlear UK, meeting people who are about to have cochlear implant surgery, answering their questions and calming their nerves.

“It is a totally different world for profoundly deaf people. Those that can hear just cannot imagine a household without telephone or radio - people who never go to the cinema or theatre, or accept party invitations. That was my life, and suddenly, following my two cochlear implants, that all changed. I am now living in a totally new world.

“It’s such a joy to share my experiences of cochlear implantation with other people and to explain the process to anyone considering an implant.”

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