When I had once gone on a long trip from Kochi to Goa in 2015, in an effort to not feel sleepy during the ride, I ended up listening to music for more than 24 hours during the long 1600 KM ride. This happened on a long weekend and come Monday, I had lost my hearing.

It was kind of scary at first and the visit to the doctors confirmed my ear infection. Luckily, I did not lose my hearing permanently and since then, I always take precautions when I ride. But going through a normal workday without hearing was an experience in itself. It not only exposes you to the constant danger of injury, but also makes you insecure when you are in a crowd. It is estimated that over 1.1 billion young people around the world are at a risk of hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices. While I was lucky to have my ears back in action, sadly many have not been as lucky as me.

Recently when I got to know of a cochlear implant operation conducted by Dr. George Kuruvilla, head of ENT in Lourde Hospital in Kochi, I was reminded of this accident again Ajayan, the patient, was born blind and had lost his hearing in his teens. Being deaf and blind in a country like India, where the facilities for the differently abled are close to non-existent, made life difficult for him and his parents. They feared for his life and future as most of the things normal people do like crossing the road would become extremely life threatening to a person like Ajay.

He was initially able to speak, but as he turned deaf, his ability to speak was also affected. This meant that a normal life or something close to it was becoming impossible for him, in turn leading to isolation from his friends and family members. As his parents aged, they constantly worried about his future and the ability to live after they had passed away. Ajayan and his family met the doctor at a local camp that was conducted in Alappuzha and the doctors felt that there was nothing much they could do for him. The only option they had was to get him a cochlear implant, which is a device that simulates sounds that reach the brain. But this again was a difficult option as the operation was not affordable for the family and the recovery was not guaranteed due to his age.

While Dr. George Kuruvilla managed to talk to his management at the Lourde Hospital and get him free surgery, the cost of implants was still not funded. By reaching out to his friends, colleagues, acquaintances and online communities, Dr. George was able to find kind hearted donors who wanted to do their part to help Ajayan hear again. The night before the surgery, an unknown man from Texas, United States brought in the much needed donation to fund the surgery and treatment.

Once Ajayan was implanted, the doctors then started his speech therapy and mapping sessions. This is similar to how physiotherapy works after a fracture or disease. Check this amazing video of recovery of Ajayan where he clearly hears his doctor and mother talking to him, after years.

Before the implant, his mother used to talk to him by writing on his hands in their own language and shortcuts. It was amazing to hear the story of how his mother used to read the newspaper for him using this non-verbal language.

Cochlear implants, often called bionic ears such as the one  Ajayan was implanted with, have two parts to them. One being the implant itself and the second is an external speech processor which receives the sounds for the implant to process. There are different types of these speech processors, of which, the latest model such as Kanso™ by Cochlear India is discreet enough to be camouflaged or hidden among the person’s hair and not cause any feeling of self-consciousness or embarrassment to the wearer.

While anyone with a total hearing loss can benefit from these implants, this is strongly recommended to children who are less than 18 months old as this helps them grow normally like other children and does not stunt their growth as compared to children who get these implants after they are 3 years old.

It’s kind of worrying to know that hearing loss in newborns can stunt their growth in more ways than one. Normal children start associating sounds with meanings between 6 months and 1 year of age, and children without the ability to hear the range of sounds, the opportunities of learning speech are lost. Delay in learning a language can put them on the path of academic under development, social isolation and more. In spite of this, children in India have had to suffer from hearing loss mainly because the parents and families weren’t aware of it. I say this, because 60% of the hearing loss cases in India in 2016 could have been prevented.

When I recently attended a bloggers’ meet in Kochi where Brett Lee was there to shed light on hearing loss as a part of the #SoundsOfCricket campaign, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Dr. George Kuruvilla that all hospitals in Kochi have started to recommend hearing tests to be conducted for all babies born in hospitals in the Ernakulam district. This was done with the support of good ENT surgeon associations in the district who understand that early detection and cochlear implant surgery is the only way to help children cope up with the demands of the modern world. It got me thinking why it isn’t mandatory across the state as hearing loss tests can help parents treat their children before they start growing up? Currently, other districts in the state conduct a vision and sound tests for newborns, but not a hearing test.

If you have ever watched a baby grow, you would realize that the growth and learning that happens in the initial years are of utmost importance! Want to see the joy experienced by a baby when he hears his mother’s voice for the first time? Check this heartwarming video of Kanso™ recipient Tharun and see for yourself why early intervention is essential

I hope Kerala, the leading state in human development index in India, would pave the way and set an example for other states by making hearing tests mandatory across all hospitals in the state. Don’t you think so too? Do share your views in the comments below.

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  1. This post badly need that photo of you with Brett Lee :)

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