Pardon? Could you repeat that? I didn't catch it… Sound familiar? An estimated 880,000 Kiwis have hearing loss - that's about one in five. Today (3 March) marks World Hearing Day. It's also a special time for a Bay of Plenty woman who's hearing better than ever - thanks to help from her friends. Bay of Plenty Times Weekend reporter Dawn Picken explains how losing and regaining the ability to perceive sounds affects relationships.

Hearing Her Future

Josie Calcott wipes tears of joy as she greets her friends. It's Tuesday morning, and some of them are seeing her for the first time since she received a second cochlear implant. "It's because of you. It's amazing, I can't believe it."

The friends are more than observers of Calcott's journey - we (this reporter included) have helped raise money so the Papamoa mum of three and nurse at Tauranga Hospital can hear in stereo. In less than a year, through activities like movie and race nights, a garage sale, marathon, sausage sizzles, selling protein bars and wine, hosting a brunch… we've amassed more than $38,000. It's not the estimated $50,000 total Calcott will need to cover rehabilitation and other expenses, but it was enough to schedule the operation, which happened February 19th in Auckland.

We ask to see the new implant, tucked behind Josie's left ear. Group member Kelly Taylor quips, "Oh, you didn't have a face lift as well, did you?" More laughter as a camera from Seven Sharp records our meeting (the programme was set to feature Josie and her friends' fundraising efforts March 2).

Josie says, "This time last year, it was like, if I win Lotto, I'll get this done." Taylor replies, "You won more than Lotto; you got us." We're chuckling, holding balloons painted with the words, 'We gave Josie an earful.'

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The implant is an electronic device surgically implanted to provide a sense of sound to a person, bypassing the normal hearing process. A small sound processor resembling a hearing aid sits behind the ear and transmits a signal to the implant. Josie says her second processor is smaller than her first.

Trailblazers

Pindrop Foundation marketing and communications manager Nic Russell said this is the first time the Northern Cochlear Implant Programme is aware of someone having an implant fundraised by a group of friends. The foundation promotes awareness and access to cochlear implants. "It might inspire others to do the same," said Russell. "Break it down - we'll have one fundraiser, that's two thousand dollars, then another is five thousand dollars. When it's broken down, it becomes much more achievable."

Fundraising committee chair Victoria Wicks-Brown attributed fundraising success largely to friendship and fun. "The thing was picking something everyone wanted to be a part of, so the fundraising almost became incidental. It was just something we wanted to do and have a good time. Always having a view of how can we make the boat go faster, how can we make the most money."

Josie points to her new implant. "It still sounds sharp." One ear is ringing. Another is rumbling. She's exhausted by extra noise. The new cochlear will be adjusted over the next year. Even without fine-tuning, Josie believes the implant is making a difference. "I used to feel isolated. I shut myself away from people." She wrote of the new device on her Facebook page called Josie's Cochlear Implant Journey it, "...feels like the missing puzzle piece is finally in its place."

Who Gets an Implant

Josie received a publicly-funded cochlear implant in 2012. Adults in New Zealand are eligible for one funded implant, while youth under aged 19 can have two. Josie became deaf after contracting chicken pox as a toddler.

She heard her children's voices clearly for the first time when she got the initial implant, and described, on her Facebook page, her reaction during her second switch-on last month. "Oh my gosh.... THAT. WAS. AMAZING! I cried. Made the whole family cry too. It's still very foreign and beepy and sharp, but it's like turning the light on and it's too bright. It is going to be so amazing."

Advocates like Russell say more funding is needed for cochlear implants. Hearing loss can have harsh economic consequences: job loss or lack of advancement opportunities.

A report last year commissioned by the New Zealand's National Foundation for the Deaf found the total cost of hearing loss was $4.9 billion in 2016.

The largest component of this was productivity costs, which represented 58 per cent of total economic costs.

The value of lost wellbeing was estimated at an additional $3.9 billion. Studies show providing access to good hearing is one of the most cost-efficient medical interventions - dollar for dollar, much more economically effective than pacemakers or implantable cardiac defibrillators.

Russell said, "It's a huge issue, but easily remedied. It's worth every penny of the investment you give someone to get their hearing aid or cochlear implant because of the health gains and full participation they can have."

Russell said when Government funded just 20 cochlear implants for adults (before 2013), life had to be falling apart before someone got an implant - people were desperate, isolated and cocooned. "And a year post-implant, it was like a light bulb had come on and their spark was back. It was re-igniting the person they were because they were able to reconnect to life again."

The previous Government boosted funding for the adult cochlear implant programme to $14.93 million for 2017/18. Ministry of Health spokesman Blair Cunningham said the one-off funding of $6.5m was provided to deliver an additional 60 adult cochlear implants for the year. The previous financial year, only 40 adults received funded implants. Mr Cunningham said 24 months is the average national wait time. "Any future additional increase in funding for cochlear implants will be considered alongside other health priorities."

Russell said things are improving, but more money's needed for the estimated 4500 New Zealanders with severe to profound hearing loss.

"We still need sustainable funding. We need better access to it. You're giving people, in essence, their lives back." She said health boards across the world are stretched by increasing, ageing populations.

"It's hard to meet those demands, hence communities coming together. It shouldn't be that way, but unfortunately, it is." Russell says some older clients take out reverse mortgages to fund implants.

David and Daphne Medhurst. David got a cochlear implant and can talk about how it has changed his relationships. Photo/Andrew Warner
David and Daphne Medhurst. David got a cochlear implant and can talk about how it has changed his relationships. Photo/Andrew Warner

Sounds Resurface

David Medhurst greets me Wednesday morning at the door of a tidy brick home in Otumoetai.

He and his wife, Daphne, both aged 86, talk with enthusiasm about the difference a cochlear implant has made for both of them.

Mr Medhurst received a single Government-funded implant nearly five years ago. His hearing had deteriorated over the years to render hearing aids useless. He waited three and-a-half years for his cochlear.

"They switched me on...that was really the beginning of a new era." He described going out to a busy restaurant that night.

"Under normal circumstances, it's just a waste of time trying to talk, one couldn't hear. But we could converse."

Mrs Medhurst interjects, "It was like a miracle."

"The cochlear is amazing and opens up all the doors which had been shut for years," said Mr Medhurst.

"Because it affected me and of course, it affected my wife, as well." The couple, married 55 years, said they used to turn down invitations for occasions like wedding receptions, because sitting across from strangers was embarrassing for Mr Medhurst.

"I wouldn't speak to them. Because if I spoke to them, they'd speak to me and I wouldn't hear what they were saying, and there's a limit to how many times you can say, 'pardon.' Of course those people were probably thinking, 'He's a miserable so-and-so,' but that's the way it went."

Mrs Medhurst said her husband's hearing impacted their relationship. "Sometimes I would have to say to him, 'Well, even I get impatient, too, sometimes. This repeating yourself does get after you.'" She ticks off signals someone presents when he or she is hard of hearing.

"The TV gets louder and louder. They accuse their partners of mumbling, not talking properly and that's a sure sign the partner is losing their hearing." She made phone calls for David, who still struggles with that task, even with his implant.

Mr Medhurst showed me his remote control which allows him to adjust his device for noisy rooms.

He also has a copper loop he can wear to control TV volume, but said he can't distinguish what kind of music is playing.

Overall, he said the cochlear has brought his personality back to what it used to be before he started losing his hearing. The couple has resumed socialising, sometimes hosting friends for lunch. "Usually about six of us around the table which we cope with very well," said Mrs Medhurst.

Love, Work and Sound

Another local cochlear implant recipient who wants to be known only by his first name said his life changed in 2012 when he was switched on.

Andy is 66 years old. He had worked around machinery for decades, which he said contributed to profound hearing loss. After two-and-a-half to three years on the public waiting list, the automotive machinist returned to the world of sound.

"It's absolutely life-changing...it's the best thing since sliced bread, really." He said his partner has been supportive and being able to hear has brought them closer.

While Andy appreciates his cochlear, he said he's only hearing half of what he would with two implants.

He had to decide which side the device should be placed. "Mine is on the left. When we have discussions at work, I have to position myself so I can get the best audio frequency from the sound of people who are talking."

Hearing loss ripples through relationships.

A 2009 British study revealed out of 1500 people with hearing loss surveyed, 44 per cent reported their impairment had lead to a slump in relationships with their partner, friends or family.

Thirty-four per cent reported the breakdown in communication brought about loss of relationships, including marriages.

Nic Russell said a University of Auckland study a couple years ago found the impact of an extensive waiting list for cochlear implants on family members was tremendous.

"There's miscommunication and misunderstanding. We are social creatures...you see how even when you have perfect hearing- things can get misunderstood."

Help and Hearing Aids

People whose hearing loss is severe enough to warrant technological help, but not bad enough for a cochlear implant, also suffer in relationships at home and work. Hearing New Zealand Bay of Plenty manager Jo Sykes said people often withdraw when they're not hearing well.

She said most people will live seven years with hearing loss before doing anything about it. "It's usually your family or friends that notice your hearing loss before you do...In couples, it can be really hard if one person has hearing issues and one doesn't.

"I've had wives in here in tears because their husbands won't do anything about it [hearing loss]. Men seem to be more stubborn, and they tend to procrastinate more and they tend to not want to admit to it more than women in my personal experience." The National Foundation for the Deaf report (NZ) said total prevalence of hearing loss in adult males was 20.6 per cent in 2016 and 17.1 per cent in adult females.

Men seem to be more stubborn, and they tend to procrastinate more and they tend to not want to admit to it more than women

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Studies find the main reason people go without hearing aids is cost.

Devices start at around $1000 and a high-end pair can cost $10,000.

Sykes said, "You get what you pay for. The more you pay, the better technology you'll be receiving." New Zealand residents can access a Ministry of Health subsidy of $511 per hearing aid every six years.

Some people may qualify for funding through ACC, Veterans Affairs and WINZ. Hearing New Zealand BOP chapter collects donated hearing aids and reissues about 10 each year for free.

The devices must be re calibrated by an audiologist. Life Unlimited, a free national service funded by the Ministry of Health, offers free hearing therapy and referrals to audiologists.

The Blue Lagoon Hearing Trust helps people of any age with hearing impairment who require financial assistance in the Tauranga, Mount Maunganui and Papamoa regions.

Audiologist Carey Wright with First Hearing Centre said getting an assessment is an important first step, even for reluctant patients.

"It can be difficult for people to understand that they're missing more than they realise." Wright said technology has advanced more quickly the past decade than ever, with new hearing aid models coming out every 12 to 18 months.

"Nothing replaces your natural hearing but the noise-cancelling technology has improved significantly as well as directionally, which enables you to hear the person in front of you."

Newer hearing aids connect with mobile phones, TV and doorbells. She sees changes in people who are hearing well for the first time in years.

"They can look a lot more relaxed...it must have a great flow-on effect in every aspect of their lives.'

Josie's Journey Continues

Outside the Mount Maunganui Runners and Walkers club room, Josie says getting a second cochlear implant is a "dream come true. I didn't think this was possible…" She nearly missed the opportunity to hear better.

At first, she resisted offers to fundraise for a second implant, but friends kept pushing. She shared a quote summing up her experience: "If you get offered a seat on a rocket ship, get on it. Don't ask which seat it is."

"I'll forever be grateful for this and it taught me how good it is to be giving towards other people. I'm looking forward to it [fundraising] being finished so I can just focus on other people."

Links:

http://www.bluelagoonhearingtrust.co.nz/

https://www.nfd.org.nz/assets/NZ-Hearing-Loss-Final-Report-2016.pdf

http://www.pindrop.org.nz

http://www.hearing.org.nz/branches/bayofplenty/

https://www.health.govt.nz/publication/guide-getting-hearing-aids-hearing-aid-subsidy-scheme

Cochlear Implants - By The Numbers

• 167 adults waiting for a cochlear implant nationwide

• 24 months average wait time

• $8.43m this year allocated for public funding

• 20 adults; 15 children; 8 newborns funded within the Northern Cochlear Implant Trust area (which includes the Bay of Plenty)

*Source: Ministry of Health

Cochlear Implant Costs:

• $50,000 - implant, surgery, rehabilitation

• $10,000 - replacement sound processor every 10 years

• $140/hour - rehabilitation costs

• $500 - repairs/spare parts (approx.)

Source: Pindrop Foundation

Hearing Loss and Dementia

Multiple studies find hearing loss may increase the risk of cognitive problems and even dementia. If the connection holds up, it raises the possibility treating hearing loss using hearing aids and cochlear implants could help stave off cognitive decline and dementia. Compared with people of normal hearing, those with moderate hearing loss had triple the risk.

Saving Sound

The National Foundation for the Deaf is campaigning this week (March 3 to 9) on the theme of

Noise Destroys

, to prevent noise-induced hearing loss caused by workplace, recreational (i.e., loud concerts) or sounds at home (power tools). Sound pressure caused by noise destroys delicate nerve cells in the inner ear that transmit sound messages to the brain. Damage is painless but permanent. Excessive exposure to noise is a known cause of one-third of hearing loss in New Zealanders. Sixty per cent of childhood hearing loss is due to preventable causes, according to the World Health Organisation.

To prevent noise-induced hearing loss:

• Wear hearing protection when you are exposed to loud noise
• Limit the amount of time you are exposed to loud noise
• Turn down the volume on personal music players - and headphones are preferable to earbuds, which play the music close to your eardrum

Hearing New Zealand's Bay of Plenty chapter has a programme for schools called Dangerous Decibels which provides a basic anatomy lesson about the ear and stages interactive games. The organisation gives away ear plugs while visiting primary and intermediate schools throughout Tauranga.

Final Fundraiser - Quiz Night with Kerre McIvor

Newstalk ZB host, author and NZME columnist Kerre McIvor will host a quiz night fundraiser for Josie Calcott the 23rd of March at the Tauranga Rugby and Sports Clubrooms on the Domain. Tickets are $25 each and include a drink, nibbles and supper. All proceeds go to towards Josie's second cochlear implant and rehabilitation costs. Payment can be made directly to the Give Josie an Earful account 03 0374 0009499 00 with your name and contact number as reference.

https://www.facebook.com/events/331669820571211/