Flick of a switch and the sounds of silence are no more
The first time I met Pia Jeffrey there was no chance of a conversation. It wasn’t only because she was six. She was born deaf. The date we met, September 16, 1987, was the miraculous moment her parents, Prue and John, and indeed Pia, had been waiting for: it was switch-on day for her bionic ear, a medical device that was both revolutionary and controversial at the time.
It was 30 years ago today and it’s stayed deep in my memory. Pia, pig-tailed, fringed and a bit gap-toothed, looked like she was going to bawl as the cochlear implant was activated and she started to hear something she had never heard before: sounds. Then her face creased into a wide smile. She laughed like a normal little girl. The first words she heard, her introduction to the world of hearing and speaking, were from her mother: “Pia, I love you.”
“I can’t remember if I understood what she said,’’ Pia O’Donnell, as she is today, a married mother of two and aspiring scientist, tells The Weekend Australian. “But I understood what she meant.’’
She only needs one word to capture that momentous day: “scary’’. The bionic ear is not a cure for deafness. It is in effect an ultrasophisticated, computerised hearing aid. If Pia removes hers, she is deaf. “It wasn’t what I was expecting,’’ she says of day one. “I was expecting — I realise now — normal talking, normal sounds. But the first thing I heard was the beeps.”
The switch-on started at Pia’s primary school in Sydney’s northern suburbs. It was nothing fancy. The doctor in charge decided to do it in the relative calm and quiet of a broom closet. In coming days Pia heard lots of other noises as the 22-electrode bionic ear was stepped up to full capacity. Her immediate favourite was the sound of the toilet flushing. “As a high-pitched noise it was fascinating.’’
She admits a loquacious loo is something she can live without today. She also would rather not hear the crinkling of plastic bags, or any post-80s or 90s music, neither of which make her unusual. “I like the Red Hot Chili Peppers,’’ she says, almost shyly. Her 12-year-old daughter, Larissa, joins in. “You hated hearing me play the recorder!”
Mum does not disagree. “Oh, God, it just didn’t sound pleasant.” Her 10-year-old son Casey, who was born deaf and has had a cochlear implant since he was six months old, admits he does disconnect at times, especially when mum and dad are banging on. “Yes,’’ Pia says, “he takes them off and storms off.”
“But,’’ she adds, “I am so glad I can hear my children.”
Thirty years ago Pia’s sonic shocks came from places the rest of us take for granted. Summer was perhaps the strangest season. “Make them stop!’’ she remembers telling her parents when she first heard locusts. The barbecue, with its sizzling sausages, fried her mind. “Food makes a noise? What?!”
The cochlear implant was developed and pioneered by Melbourne-based doctor Graeme Clarke, now 82. The five-hour operation at Sydney’s Camperdown Children’s Hospital was carried out by another leader in the field, ear, nose and throat surgeon William Gibson, who talks about Pia and his other young patients in Tina Allen’s recent biography, Bill Gibson: Pioneering Bionic Ear Surgeon.
It was contentious at the time, with some people comparing it with child experimentation. It was different, it was claimed, to conduct the procedure on adults, which started in October 1982 with Melbourne man Graham Carrick.
Today, Cochlear is a booming stock market-listed company, responsible for about two-thirds of the global hearing implant market. More than 250,000 people have received Australian-developed cochlear implants, from babies to octogenarians.
Pia was not the first Australian child to go aurally bionic. Two boys, 10-year-old Scott Smith and five-year-old Bryn Davies, were the debut pediatric recipients in 1985. A few months before Pia’s operation in August, Sydney four- year-old Holly McDonnell, deaf after suffering from meningitis, received a cochlear implant. Today Holly Taylor is married, has a baby girl and is pursuing a career in law.
Pia’s uniqueness — though that is not a description she would use — is that she was the first born-deaf child to receive an implant, and so the first to learn almost all her language through the device. At age six, her vocabulary was 10 words, according to her school reports.
Her parents fought hard to change this, fronting medical ethics committees to argue their daughter’s case. One night they watched a medical videotape of an adult woman undergoing the implant procedure. Unknown to them, Pia sneaked out of her room and watched too. And from the next morning she was ready, suitcase packed, stuffed koala and favourite Rupert Bear book in hand, wanting to go to hospital.
“If I hadn’t had the procedure it would have taken longer for the community to realise it works on children, even ones who are born deaf,’’ she says.
There is resistance to this, even now, from some advocates for the deaf, who argue deafness is not an illness that needs to be “cured”. Pia agrees. “It’s not a cure,’’ she says of the bionic ear, “it’s just a hearing aid. At the end of the day every person who has a cochlear implant is deaf. Take them off and they can’t hear.’’ Her choice, though, is to hear.
Pia’s father, who worked on swimming pool renovations, died in 2003. He was fascinated by the weather — making Pia and her younger brother Alex, who was also born deaf and has a cochlear implant, stay silent during the TV news weather reports.
After a dozen years as a fulltime mother, Pia is finishing a science degree and hopes to become a meteorologist. “I am fascinated with storms,’’ she says. I am tempted to make a joke about being able to hear the wind, hear the rain, hear the thunder — and not keep quiet about it — but it just doesn’t seem right.
Pia O’Donnell with her children Casey, 10, Larissa, 12, and her mother Prue Jeffrey, in Sydney; and, top left, as a hearing six-year-old
Pia with her mother after receiving the implant
Stephen Romei’s report on Pia 30 years ago