Overhearing childhood conversations between her sons, or the banter over the dinner table on a night out with friends are things Tauranga woman Charlotte de Jong will never take for granted.

The 35-year-old had her cochlear implant switched on this week, helping her return to a world that has been slowly slipping away for more than a decade.

Mrs de Jong had perfect hearing as a child but by her late teens it was starting to decline and at age 18 she got her first hearing aids.

Shortly after she turned 30, when her youngest son was six-weeks-old, she experienced sudden complete hearing loss in her right ear.

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"I still managed but then have had even further hearing loss until last year when I went to my audiologist, who said it was time she referred me for a cochlear implant," Mrs de Jong said.

Over the years, as her hearing eroded, so too did her social life.

"When I compare my life now to how it was a few years ago then I am definitely less social - going out to a restaurant with friends is really hard, I can't follow any banter between friends as I can't lip read fast enough. In my job, as a teacher, small things like understanding what word my students are wanting me to spell for them, hearing their speeches, keeping up in meetings etc are really hard."

Raising my sons - I feel that I miss out on "over hearing" the conversations between them.
I have always tried really hard not to let my hearing loss get in the way of living but over the last couple of years that's become so much harder."

Mrs de Jong described the moment her implant was switched on Monday as a truly unique experience.

"I had been prepared for voices to sound like chipmunks or Donald Duck but they really didn't. At the beginning voices just sounded like electronic sound. Within a couple of minutes I could pick out the number of syllables within a word, then slowly I could pick up some words. Within a few hours voices sounded like they were being distorted by an electronic voice-changer."

She has daily listening rehabilitation and is calling on the help of family and friends to expose herself to a range of different voices, helping her to progress faster.

Once settled the implant will be "life-changing" - without it she would not be able to continue her work as a teacher.

"I will be able to stay in a job that I love, continue to communicate verbally with my children and husband, function in society with relative ease, socialise with my friends and continue to live the life I was living."

However, it hasn't been an easy road.

"The operation did throw me around more than I expected it to but I always knew it would be worth it. Lucky for me I have a very supportive husband, family, friends and school who have all been amazing."

Mrs de Jong also runs her own internet-based business, The Concrete Chick, creating home decor from concrete.

"I really enjoy coming up with new and interesting concrete pieces for homes," she said.

The busy mum considers herself very fortunate to have received one of only 20 cochlear implants received in the northern area (from Taupo north) each year.

"There are so many others who could benefit from this technology if more funding was made available," she said.

A photography exhibition celebrating the life-changing impact of cochlear implants last night opened in Tauranga, featuring local mums who have become advocates for the cause.

The Sounds of Life exhibition opened at The Historic Village, showcasing the lives of Kiwis enriched by a cochlear implant operation to restore hearing loss.

The photos, taken by Lara Boddington of Auckland company Soul Sisters Photography, also featured in the Auckland Festival of Photography in June.

From Tauranga the exhibition will head to Hamilton and other destinations around the country.

Marketing and communications manager for The Pindrop Foundation, which raises awareness of cochlear implants, Nicola Russell, said hearing loss in adults could lead to depression, frustration and social isolation.

"Trying to bring awareness to severe hearing loss is a difficult thing to do," she said.
The 13 exhibition participants, who come from all works of life, have shared their personal stories in a booklet accompanying the exhibition and on the Pindrop website.

Cochlear implant recipients, including Tauranga women Josie Calcott and Aynsley Staessens, also attended the exhibition, opened by Tauranga MP Simon Bridges.
Since receiving their implants both women have worked in the community to raise awareness and understanding of cochlear implants.

While implants were costly, Ms Russell said the gains were huge in terms of improved health. Recipients were more able to remain engaged in work, tertiary education and careers.

Loss of hearing was linked to loneliness and cognitive decline, Ms Russell said.
Often unintentionally, hearing people would stop talking to individuals with hearing loss because they weren't being understood.

"Hearing loss cuts you off from people."

In two years the Northern Cochlear Implant Programme has gone from having 68 adults on the waiting list, with an expected wait time of 14 months to 75 to 80 people and a wait time of more than two years.

Ms Russell said those waiting for an implant were regularly scored on their eligibility and as a result could move up or down the list, causing them to live with constant uncertainty.

"Your life is on hold and it could be on hold for a number of years," she said.

The Pindrop Foundation hopes to give people with a hearing a voice at government level to increase the funding for implants in New Zealand.

Sounds of Life Photography Exhibition
When: Today 10am-3pm
Where: The Balcony Room, The Historic Village, Seventeenth Ave West, Tauranga
Admission: Free

Cochlear Implants in New Zealand
- A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted electronic device that provides a sense of sound to a person who is severely hard of hearing or profoundly deaf.
- The average cost of an implant, and one year of rehabilitation, is $50,000.
- Only 40 adult implant operations are funded each year - 20 in the northern region (from Taupo north) and 20 in the southern region.
- About 1500 people have received cochlear implants in New Zealand.