This week marked the 4000th cochlear implant at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital in Melbourne. You may not know that my career was intertwined with the exciting cochlear developments in the 90’s. I started work with Professor Graeme Clark as a full-time clinician and researcher. I’m grateful to him for taking a chance on me; when I came to ask him for a job I had spent some years out of the research world as I’d had four children in fairly quick succession.
Going to the Bionic Ear Institute was very exciting. At the time, cochlear implants were often giving someone who had very little, or no, residual hearing an ability to understand speech in good listening environments. But there was still a lot to be done to make it work better. There is still research going on to find out why the implant works so much better for some people than others.
So, I began working on a new curly electrode with Graeme Clark and the talented engineers at Cochlear and many surgeons around the world. The new design implant we were developing was pre-curled – that is, it went in straight and ended up tightly curled around the central spiral of the inner ear. This meant it could be nearer to the hearing nerve and thus more efficient.
The story of the development of the Australian cochlear implant is an inspiring one. I believe it’s a story of vision, medical science, persistence, team leadership and collaboration between scientists and entrepreneurs. In particular it is a story of Graeme Clark and his leadership of teams of engineers and scientists and his partnership with innovative engineers.
Research and development of medical devices in Australia owes much to the brave and generous volunteers who are prepared to try experimental devices and to continue on as part of research teams to evaluate how well they are working. The research volunteers that I met in my work in cochlear implant research have been more than inspiring. They have been my heroes. I think much of their selfless persistence comes from knowing the despair that deafness can bring and a goal to help other people back to hearing.
Today, the cochlear implant is so much better than most of us could have dreamt of, and I’m proud to have played a little part in that progress.
Yes, my piece in the cochlear puzzle was very small, but you can read another story that shows that even very small contributions can change lives.