‘Just Like Winning The Lottery’

An excerpt from my book, Sound of Silence.

My parents lived in England and my father had become quite ill so I made a number of trips to spend time with them. This involved quite a lot of train travel when I got to England. One trip led to a conversation with a woman who told me her worries about what to do with her deaf son. I shared the knowledge I had, as anyone would, and did my best to help. We didn’t exchange cards; the Internet was not omnipresent, and we lost touch. Some years later she contacted me and has shared this story, which I’m sharing with you because you never know when your one brick in the wall is an important brick:

“Meeting Dr Elaine Saunders on the train in 1989 between London Paddington station and Exeter station was just like wining the lottery for us, and has had a huge impact on our lives.

We had boarded the train on 22 December at four o’clock in the afternoon. The train was packed with Christmas shoppers and we asked this Lady if she minded if we sat with her. She explained that she had travelled from Australia and was on the way to visit her mother in Exeter.

We were on holiday from Botswana visiting family in England and we had taken the opportunity to see an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist and an audiologist in Harley Street that day with our son Hughan who was diagnosed profoundly deaf at 14 months old; at the time he was 16 months old. We had desperately been searching for answers on how to deal with with his deafness and how we should be teaching him his communication skills in the future.

On the train, we explained to the Lady why we had been to London and about Hughan’s hearing loss. We couldn’t believe it when she told us she had been to University with the audiologist we had seen earlier in the day, and started explaining that she was studying deafness and all about a device called the ‘Cochlear Implant’. It was still in the early stages of being developed and she gave us some details about how the equipment worked and that the Australian device was ahead in technology at the time. This gave us huge hope for how we could maybe help Hughan in the future.

When Hughan turned three years old he was unable to hear most speech sounds using his powerful hearing aids, so we had to choose between a signing programme or the Cochlear Implant. Because of information that we had been told that day on the train in 1989, we didn’t hesitate with the idea of Hughan having the Cochlear Implant, especially if it was the Australian device. He was the tenth child to receive the Cochlear Implant in Cape Town in 1992. England had not started giving children the implant yet. 

In 2011, I came across a packet with our train tickets and a small piece of paper with the name Dr Elaine Saunders on it. I decided to Google the name, and couldn’t believe it when I found all the information about the incredible work she had done since we had met her that day on the train in 1989. I was able to email her to say thank you for all the information she gave us…

DesignWorks - Blamey Saunders

The Cochlear Implant has had a huge impact on our son’s life. Hughan, now 25, drives and owns his own car and he works full time servicing caravans. He has recently travelled by himself to visit family in South Africa. He is now even able to hold a conversation on a telephone. Strangers assume he has normal hearing!

Words cannot express how thankful we are for having met Dr Elaine Saunders all those years ago. Just like winning the lottery!

– Hughan’s Mother

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  1. I am so interested in your work and in your story, since I recently read of your work in a Melbourne newspaper. I am a retired teacher of the deaf and was the only one to attend the first six audiology conferences in Australia, because I was hungry for knowledge of audiology which had been absent from my training.

    I worked in several of our Dominican schools down the east coast of Australia in my thirty years as an educator of the deaf. Two of these appointments were to establish Early Education programs, one in Brisbane and one in Melbourne. in the latter part of the 70s I was brought back to Victoria to take up the principalship of our school at Portsea to relieve one of the Sisters who was going on a Rotary scholarship to Manchester University. She also became a Paul Harris Fellow and some years later gave the opening address at the International Conference of Rotary in Las Vegas.

    At Portsea Sr Frances Caine became principal and she asked Graeme Clarke to extend the fitting of Cochlear Implants to children and the first, a teenager, was implanted. Later I was in Melbourne working again with families with small children and the first pre-schooler was implanted. She was three and a half.

    I later went back to out Portsea school, by then relocated to Melbourne, and we worked with the researchers from the Bionic Institute on both the Cochlear Implant and the Tickle Talker. It is a rich history to be a part of.

    I know that Frances has been in touch wit Peter recently and is trialling your hearing aids. She has had varying degrees of success over her years of hearing aid wearing.

    I hope your business goes from strength to strength as it is such an important work. Best wishes.

    Sr Joan M Winter O.P.

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