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Hearing again

MADAM Wong Lai Fung, 39, was delighted when her daughter, Chong Sook Kyi was born. But when little Sook Kyi was two years old, Madam Wong began to notice that Sook Kyi did not respond to aural cues, even when someone was rattling a toy behind her.

Determined to help her daughter, Madam Wong sought treatment for Sook Kyi, and with the help of surgery known as cochlear implant, her daughter, now six, can hear.

"We weren't sure what was going to happen, but we really hoped that our little girl could be like any other child her age," she said.

Unlike Sook Kyi who was born deaf, Mr Eng Sek Kee, 60, was like any normal child when he was young. But in his adult years, he worked in a textile factory that emitted a high level of noise, causing him to lose his hearing within a year.

In 1991, he was diagnosed with early-stage nose cancer. Treatment for cancer left him with pus oozing out of his good ear, and he gradually lost hearing in that ear as well.

"It was very painful for me. I could not hear, and I felt a bit jealous of people who could. I felt very bad and felt inferior to other people. I lived with my condition for 10 years. My wife would write me notes to communicate with me," said Eng, who is from Pontian, Johor.

Determined to lead a better life, Mr Eng underwent a cochlear implant in 2001. Today, he says he can hear about 60% of what he could hear when he was younger, a vast improvement from the days before surgery.

Cochlear implants: Offering hope to people with severe hearing loss

The ear is made up of the external, middle and inner parts. Conductive hearing loss is caused by problems in the external and middle ear, that can prevent sounds from getting into the inner ear.

This could be due to ear wax, middle ear infections, a build-up of fluids in the middle ear, or a hole in the ear drum.

Sensori-neural hearing loss occurs when the inner ear or the nerve supplying it, is damaged. A child may be born with this condition (for example, due to an inherited condition or the mother contracted German measles while pregnant) or acquire it later in life.

While hearing aids may provide a person with improved hearing, patients with very severe sensori-neural hearing loss will be unable to hear well even with a hearing aid. In such instances, a cochlear implant provides hope for these patients.

A cochlear implant is made up of two components: a small electronic device that is surgically implanted under the skin in the inner ear (cochlea) and an external device worn outside the body to capture incoming sound.

The external device translates the sound into distinctive electrical signals, which then travels up a thin cable to the headpiece and are transmitted via radio waves to the implanted electrodes in the cochlea. The electrodes' signals stimulate the auditory nerve fibres to send information to the brain where it is interpreted as meaningful sound.

According to Assoc Prof Low Wong Kein, "Since the first patient we operated on in 1997, there have been many more who have achieved excellent results."

HEAR-ing through 'reverse education therapy'

A special initiative to understand hearing loss is Hearing Education Arcade (HEAR). The brainchild of Assoc Prof Low, HEAR is an interactive, educational programme designed to educate professionals, caregivers, teachers and the public about hearing loss and hearing-impaired individuals.

One of the many exhibits includes an experience on what an individual with hearing impairment hears by plotting his/her audiogram.

Such an elaborate facility offers what Assoc Prof Low terms as "reverse education therapy".

"As children grow older into adulthood, they will encounter various issues in their social lives, and many of the problems they face can be attributed to the lack of understanding from caregivers and friends.

"It is only through effective education, such as experiencing for oneself what a hearing impaired person goes through, that people actually understand the difficulties hearing-impaired go through. Through such 'reverse education therapy' at HEAR, we hope to address this issue," he said.

Cochlear implants: the process

Patients are first assessed for their suitability. The cochlear implant surgery itself takes about two hours, and patients typically stay about two days in- hospital.

About two to four weeks after surgery, the audiologist will place the external device outside the patient's ear and programme them according to the patient's needs.

Patients will be taught how to look after the system. The Auditory-Verbal Therapist will also teach the patient how to listen to sound through the implant.

To lessen the psychological impact of the surgery on patients, especially children, a counsellor will demonstrate the process in a simulated surgical environment to help patients anticipate what they will be going through, an exercise Assoc Prof Low terms as "surgical conditioning".


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