Bionic man who gave the gift of hear­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

It says much that surgery to im­plant the bionic ear is no longer con­sid­ered news­wor­thy. Thou­sands of peo­ple in Aus­tralia are walk­ing around with one, and that is largely due to Bill Gib­son, known widely as “the Prof” by many of those he has helped to achieve a nor­mal life.

He is not widely known out­side med­i­cal cir­cles, and this book is meant to rem­edy that. Gib­son read­ily co-op­er­ated with Tina Allen, an ex­pe­ri­enced med­i­cal sci­en­tist and writer, but he some­times seems a bit be­mused about the project. He sim­ply is not the celebrity type. He is the type who goes fish­ing with mates and dresses up as Santa Claus for chil­dren’s par­ties.

Although he seems very Australian, he was in fact born in Bri­tain. He comes from a fam­ily of doc­tors and there was never much doubt that he would be­come one. He stud­ied in Bri­tain, where he gained his qual­i­fi­ca­tions, and was drawn to au­di­ol­ogy be­cause of the break­throughs tak­ing place in the field. In par­tic­u­lar, Graeme Clark and his team in Mel­bourne were ex­am­in­ing ways of us­ing new tech­nol­ogy to help deaf peo­ple, fo­cus­ing on the cochlea, the part of the ear that passes sounds to the brain.

There was al­ready a prim­i­tive ver­sion of the bionic ear avail­able but it pro­vided only a dot­dash sort of sound. Devel­op­ing this into a mul­ti­chan­nel de­vice that could con­vert sounds into elec­tronic im­pulses that the brain could “hear” was a huge step for­ward. Gib­son came to Aus­tralia in 1983 to fol­low it up, see­ing the op­por­tu­nity to knit his sur­gi­cal ex­per­tise to the de­vice.

Allen is adept at ex­plain­ing the tech­nol­ogy and how it evolved from its shaky be­gin­nings, grow­ing from rough ex­per­i­ments to a com­mer­cial model. In 1984 Gib­son im­planted the de­vice in two women who had lost their hear­ing, with good re­sults. Fur­ther re­fine­ments of the de­vice fol­lowed and the more rou­tine.

There were, in­evitably, fail­ures as the med­i­cal teams learned more about dis­tin­guish­ing be­tween pa­tients who were suit­able for im­plants and those who were not but there was a sense of solid progress. The de­vice be­came com­pact and Gib­son de­vel­oped a way to im­plant it us­ing a small in­ci­sion rather than a large C shaped one.

The first gen­er­a­tion of re­cip­i­ents were peo­ple who had lost their hear­ing in adult­hood. This meant they un­der­stood the con­cept of speech and of spo­ken com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Gib­son formed the view that while restor­ing hear­ing to adults was im­por­tant the fo­cus should be on young peo­ple, even chil­dren, who had been deaf from birth and so had never learned to speak. By the age of seven or so the speech or­gans had ef­fec­tively at­ro­phied.

Gib­son even­tu­ally chose a four-year-old girl for an im­plant, which in­volved con­vinc­ing med­i­cal reg­u­la­tors that the process was eth­i­cal sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dure be­came and prac­ti­cal. It worked, and the lit­tle girl learned to both un­der­stand and use speech. Gib­son was able to lever­age the suc­cess to push the age thresh­old down­wards, to chil­dren un­der the age of two.

Along the way he helped es­tab­lish CICADA — Cochlear Im­plant Club and Ad­vi­sory As­so­ci­a­tion — a group than en­ables im­plant re­cip­i­ents to meet reg­u­larly, pro­vid­ing sup­port to each other and feed­back to doc­tors. (This biog­ra­phy was com­mis­sioned by CICADA.)

As the suc­cess rate im­proved it be­came eas­ier to ob­tain fund­ing for spe­cial­ist fa­cil­i­ties and post-op ther­apy. But there was one group that crit­i­cised and at­tacked Gib­son, as well as oth­ers in the bionic ear cir­cle. The Sign­ing Deaf group took the view that con­gen­i­tal deaf­ness should not be seen as a dis­ease to be “cured”. In­stead, the fo­cus should be on teach­ing deaf chil­dren about sign­ing, which should it­self be seen as a valid al­ter­na­tive lan­guage. Allen notes this idea is dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand but she ac­knowl­edges that it is deeply held by some.

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