Flick of a switch and the sounds of si­lence are no more

The Weekend Australian - - THE NATION - STEPHEN ROMEI

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.

JAMES CROUCHER

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

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