The ‘bionic’ ears that are saving brothers from silent childhood

Little Lucas Carruthers has had a good start to 2015 – he has been able to hear for the first time thanks to special hearing aids, just like his big brother. Catherine Scott reports.

Lucas Carruthers, with his dad Scot

Lucas Carruthers plays happily with his big brother Hayden. When his mum calls his name he responds. But it hasn’t always been like this.

For the first year of his life Lucas, was unable to hear virtually anything. He would play in his own silent world, with his parents Tracy and Scot having to bang the floor to make a vibration to get his attention.But now, thanks to two cochlear implants, Lucas can hear sounds, including his own name, for the first time and is learning how to respond to them.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Both 15-month-old Lucas and two-year-old Hayden from Harrogate were born profoundly deaf. Hayden was also fitted with two cochlear implants when he was 13 months old and he is now talking like any two year old.

“Hayden was seven weeks old when the hospital confirmed he had severe and profound hearing loss,” explains mum Tracy. “We just didn’t know where to turn. some of the thoughts you have are ridiculous. I remember thinking will he be able to go to school? Can he learn to drive?”

Hayden was fitted with normal hearing aids and when he was seven months old he was referred to the Listening for Life Centre at Bradford Royal Infimary as the hearing aids weren’t really effective.

“He could hear really loud sounds such as a dog barking, but he couldn’t hear us talking to him.”

The couple were told Hayden would be suitable for cochlear implants and they went away to research the devices.

Cochlear implants contain two parts, an implant and an audio processor which is worn on the head attached by a magnet. The processor contains the battery which powers the device.

The implant (which is surgically inserted beneath the skin) converts the sounds picked up by the processor into an electrical signal which bypasses the damaged part of the ear and causes vibrations in the inner ear. This enables the nervous system to transmit the sensation of sound to the brain.

“We did a lot of research. We talked to lots of parents of children who’d had them and to children themselves and adults. It was a hard decision as we were worried if we did go ahead, Hayden would lost the little hearing he did have.”

In the end they decided to go ahead with the procedure which initially involved a five-hour operation to fit the implant into Hayden’s tiny skull and into his cochlea (middle ear).

“It was nerve-racking but the hospital were brilliant and contacted as soon as they had done the first operation to say it had gone well.”

Six weeks after the implant was fitted Hayden went back to the hospital to have the external processor fitted and the device turned on.

“He started to respond quite quickly which was just amazing,” says Tracy. Although the sound produced by the cochlear implant is different to the sound we hear and take for granted, both Hayden and Lucas know nothing else.

Although doctors still aren’t clear what caused Hayden’s deafness they did warn the couple that if they had another baby it too could be deaf, although it was thought to be unlikely.

But at his early hearing tests it soon became clear that Lucas too was deaf.

“Lucas has no hearing in his right ear even with a hearing aid and he had a tiny amount in his left ear. We had been through it all with Hayden and so the decision to go ahead with the cochlear implant for Lucas was a easier. Also he really didn’t get on with the hearing aids at all.”

Lucas had his internal implant fitted at the end of November and the device was turned on this week, although he will return frequently to gradually have the sound turned up.

“He is just starting to respond, but it is all so new to him. He doesn’t even know his own name, as he has never heard it before. But now he turns to us and smiles and responds to our voices. It’s unbelievable really.”

Tracy and Stuart are learning sign language to help their sons further as there are times when they cannot wear the processors and so are once again plunged into a silent world.

“They have to take them off at night so that the batteries can be charged and they cannot wear them for swimming as they cannot get wet,” explains Tracy

“They also will never be able to play contact sport which is why I am glad in someway they have each other as they will go through the same things and will be able to support each other.”

The boys will have to have new devices fitted approximately every 20 years, but with the speed in which the technology is advancing this could change.

Ear surgeon Mr Dave Strachen who operated on Lucas, believes more people could benefit from cochlear implant technology than do so at present.

“Often many clinicians aren’t aware that people with hearing loss could benefit from a cochlear implant. We are working to try to raise awareness of the benefits of this treatment which really is life changing. We’ve even given an implant to someone in their 80s,” he says.

“NICE (National Institute of Clinical Excellence) guidance is one implant for adults who fit a certain criteria of hearing loss, and for children under 17 it is two on the NHS.

“Research has also shown that the earlier a child has the implant the better – ideally before the child turns four. The longer you leave it the more the brain loses the capacity to understand the signals.”

The Carruthers’s hope is that their sons will be able to attend mainstream school and be just like any other little boys.

“They are cheeky chaps and have great personalities. We just want the best for them.”