Richard Turner: What I thought of BBC Alba’s The Switch On

Posted on January 12, 2016

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The other day I watched a really good TV documentary. I could really identify with it through my own personal experience of getting a cochlear implant.

It was called ‘The Switch-On’ and it was shown on the Scottish BBC Alba channel. Although it is filmed in Gaelic, it has English subtitles. You can find the link here.

It follows the lives of five cochlear implant patients at Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock from their first assessments to their operations, switch-ons and then their lives post-switch-on. Andy Palmer from ‘The Limping Chicken’ deaf blog has a very good review of it too: here.

Andy highlights the fact that this documentary tells cochlear implant stories you don’t see in viral Facebook or Youtube videos of switch-ons with young women bursting into tears when they can hear for the first time or babies breaking into a cute smile.

It may be some people’s experience of their switch-on but it wasn’t mine and it wasn’t for many other people, like the people shown in this documentary. I was just so relieved it had worked and thankful that I could hear again!

This is the first time I’ve seen anything that presents a more realistic, balanced picture of what it’s like for many people during and after their switch-on.

The outcome varies a lot between people depending on many factors such as the surgeon’s skill, how long they have been deaf, their knowledge of sound, speech and ability to lipread. The programme showed how very different the expectations and outcomes were for the different candidates.

It’s all about managing your expectations. I remember that my expectations were very low. I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high just in case it didn’t work and I couldn’t hear anything.

It was definitely worth the risk though and it had taken me a long time to get to that point. At the time, my hearing had deteriorated to such an extent that I was struggling to communicate with anyone without them having to write it down and my hearing aid was not giving me any benefit. I felt I had very little to lose.

Thankfully, the operation was a success and immediately after the switch-on, I could hear much better than I could before. It met my expectations and more. I could have a conversation with my wife again and after a while speak to my mother on the phone after five years and listen to music again.

I have to be realistic though. I still struggle to hear with it at times, especially when there is a lot of background noise. I still have to rely on captions to follow TV programmes, films and theatre performances. I have also had a few times when the processor has failed and have been left completely deaf over the weekend until I could get back to the hospital to get it fixed. I am still deaf without it.

Cochlear implants are not magic bullets to restore hearing. I have met some people whose cochlear implants have either failed completely or not turned out as well as they had expected. For many people it is a long process involving months of therapy after switch-on and for a few others they still struggle with them, even years later. They are successful for most people though.

I can honestly say that my life has been transformed with my implant and it has really helped my confidence. I am now working again after I had to give up my job when I lost my hearing, I am socialising again and I can communicate much better with everyone around me.

I could really relate to Mark in the documentary, a forty-eight year man working as a sign-fitter. He had suddenly lost his hearing over a period of ten months and not only struggled to communicate with anyone, but he had lost his social life, was on medication for depression and was at risk of losing his job from the company where he had worked for thirty-two years.

It is ridiculous that his boss was considering sacking him if the cochlear implant didn’t work because being deaf does not affect your ability to put up signs. All his boss needed to do was to make a few reasonable adjustments to help him do his work. Thankfully, his cochlear implant operation was successful and he kept his job.

Mark was like a different person after his switch-on. He talked about how amazing it was to be able to hear his dog walking and breathing again, everyday sounds that most people take for granted. He got his life back, which was brilliant.

We also saw Rona, a sixteen-year old girl, who lost her hearing three years before when she was a singer in the local choir and had her whole life ahead of her. She had lost a lot of her confidence and didn’t want to go to school and mix with her friends. Her mother said that she had lost her independence, which was particularly hard for a teenage girl.

We saw the switch-on of Rona’s second implant, which was a success. Afterwards, it was great to see her going to see her favourite band, One Direction, in concert with her mum. When she found out that the band’s management were so inspired by her story that they invited her backstage afterwards, she was overcome with tears of emotion. Seeing her smiling face as she took selfies with the band and they hugged her, I felt so happy for her. She’s now planning on going to university, which is brilliant.

Then there was Craig, a seventy-five year old man, who had become profoundly deaf through progressive hearing loss over many years. He couldn’t have a normal conversation with his wife anymore without her writing it down and it was really sad to see him struggling to chat to his grandsons in the garden.

I meet a lot of elderly people, who struggle to cope with their hearing loss. Many have arthritis and sight loss too, and some have dementia. It is very difficult for them and their families to adapt to the sudden change as their hearing gets worse and they feel increasingly isolated.

Unfortunately Craig’s switch-on was not as successful as he and his wife had hoped and he still struggled to understand what she was saying to him. It took a lot of perseverance and months of therapy before his hearing got much better. Thankfully, it did and it was obvious from watching him talk to his wife and grandsons how much better he could hear and communicate with them.

We’re told in this programme that only 5% of people who could benefit from a cochlear implant actually receive one. That is a real shame. I think that more people like Craig over the age of sixty-five would really see the benefit of getting a cochlear implant, but few of them actually get one.

I’m glad this programme showed a more realistic side to the story we often hear about cochlear implants being ‘miracle cures’. It’s important for anyone considering one to research it well, talk to other people and manage their expectations. But as Mark said in the programme, I think that everyone, who would benefit from one, should have the chance to get one, not just a select few.

By Richard Turner. Richard blogs at his own blog, Good Vibrations and works in hearing aid support for Action on Hearing Loss

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