The lo­cal sur­geon who pi­o­neered the bionic ear

Monthly Chronicle - - Front Page - Jenny Bar­lass

“He’s a med­i­cal pioneer yet few out­side of hear­ing cir­cles know his name”

When Sue Wal­ters was stuck down at 22 by menin­gi­tis and ren­dered stone deaf, it felt like Get Smart’s cone of si­lence had been jammed shut around her head.

In de­spair, her par­ents took her to ENT sur­geon and then Wahroonga res­i­dent, Pro­fes­sor Bill Gib­son. In Au­gust 1984, he re­stored her hear­ing with a ‘bionic ear’.

It was an his­toric op­er­a­tion, a first for both the sur­geon and for NSW. When an elated Sue heard her first words af­ter months of si­lence, she said she “started to feel con­nected to hu­man­ity again”.

The life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of more than 40 of Pro­fes­sor Gib­son’s pa­tients in­clud­ing Sue Wal­ters are in­cluded in his re­cently pub­lished bi­og­ra­phy, Bill Gib­son: pi­o­neer­ing

bionic ear sur­geon. Cochlear im­plant sup­port group CICADA com­mis­sioned med­i­cal writer Tina Allen to write the bi­og­ra­phy so the in­spi­ra­tional story of this pi­o­neer­ing sur­geon and his pa­tients would be pre­served and reach a wider au­di­ence.

Pro­fes­sor Gib­son’s pa­tients were among the first peo­ple in the world to re­ceive the bionic ear, in­vented by Pro­fes­sor Graeme Clark and his team in Mel­bourne. The term ‘bionic ear’ sounds fan­ci­ful but its 22 elec­trodes al­low pro­foundly deaf re­cip­i­ents to hear the com­plete speech range, and even mu­sic.

“Af­ter im­plant­ing the first 20 adults in NSW, Pro­fes­sor Gib­son made the brave de­ci­sion in 1987 to op­er­ate on a four year-old girl, who was the youngest re­cip­i­ent of the bionic ear in the world,” ex­plains Tina Allen.

“Within six months of her op­er­a­tion, Holly McDonell had started speak­ing again and was able to at­tend kindy. It had been a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion for Holly’s par­ents to go ahead with such a con­tro­ver­sial op­er­a­tion and her mother Vik­torija said af­ter­wards: “‘That mir­a­cle, I think we got it’.”

This kind and gifted sur­geon would to­gether with his wife Alex throw Christ­mas par­ties at the cou­ple’s Clis­sold Av­enue home for early cochlear im­plant re­cip­i­ents. Held in the back gar­den of the Wahroonga home around the pool, guests vol­un­teered to col­lect cut­lery from a lo­cal restau­rant, ta­bles from a nearby pri­vate boys’ school and pro­duce from the mar­kets.

Once he started op­er­at­ing on more chil­dren, they and their fam­i­lies also be­came reg­u­lar at­ten­dees at th­ese Yule­tide events, as well as at pic­nics at Lane Cove River Park or­gan­ised by the cochlear sup­port group.

‘Prof’ as many pa­tients call him, par­tic­i­pated in the fun run and games at th­ese pic­nics. Sue Wal­ters said: “‘Prof’ is such a fun guy. You don’t ex­pect your sur­geon to get in­volved, but he threw him­self into all the ac­tiv­i­ties.”

He was se­cretly nom­i­nated in 1995 by Mem­bers of the Ro­tary Club of Berowra for the Aus­tralian of the Year Award. The nom­i­na­tion pa­per de­scribed him as a “mild-man­nered, unas­sum­ing, al­most re­tir­ing man” and re­sulted in him re­ceiv­ing a gen­eral di­vi­sion award (AM) from the Gov­er­nor-Gen­eral, Bill Hay­den. The Club also sup­ported Pro­fes­sor Gib­son by sup­ply­ing play­ground equip­ment for his Chil­dren’s Cochlear Im­plant Pro­gram, where tod­dlers re­ceived re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion to learn how to lis­ten and speak.

Be­tween 1984 and 2014, Pro­fes­sor Gib­son per­formed the bionic ear op­er­a­tion more than 2000 times, mak­ing him one of the most pro­lific sur­geons in his field. In Jan­uary this year, Bill Gib­son’s AM was up­graded to an AO for ‘dis­tin­guished ser­vice to medicine, [and for] the ad­vance­ment of cochlear im­plant pro­grams.’

Now 73, he no longer op­er­ates but con­tin­ues to see the loyal pa­tients who ring the Syd­ney Cochlear Im­plant Cen­tre (SCIC) in Gladesville to make ap­point­ments with ‘Prof’.

Author Tina Allen de­scribes the seven years she took to re­search and write his bi­og­ra­phy as a “rich and re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence”, and felt sad when the process fi­nally came to an end.

“He’s a med­i­cal pioneer yet few out­side of hear­ing cir­cles know his name,’’ said Tina. She was in­spired by a quote from the late hu­man­i­tar­ian and oph­thal­mol­o­gist, Fred Hol­lows when she wrote the last lines of the bi­og­ra­phy: ‘The ba­sic at­tribute of mankind is to look af­ter each other. The de­sire to help oth­ers still burns brightly in Wil­liam Peter Rea Gib­son.’

Prof Gib­son with Holly Tay­lor and her mother Vic­torija McDonell

Pro­fes­sor Bill Gib­son and early cochlear im­plant re­cip­i­ent Sue Wal­ters

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