Life changed profoundly for Whangārei Boys' High School student Curtis Robinson after a major surgery helped him to hear again.

After Curtis was born prematurely, his mum thought Curtis was "a good sleeper" as noise didn't seem to bother him.

"At three months, we did a screening test and found out that Curtis had a moderate to severe hearing loss in one ear, and severe to profound in the other," mother Carmen Truman said.

A month later, Curtis was fitted with hearing aids, but as he grew older his hearing deteriorated, and even the most powerful devices stopped working.

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"I got really frustrated that I wasn't able to understand people," Curtis said.

"I learned lip-reading, but unless I looked directly at people, I wouldn't know what they say."

His audiologist suggested getting assessed for a cochlear implant to restore the hearing and give Curtis a chance to being part of the audible world.

Other than hearing aids, cochlear implants don't amplify sound in the ear. A microphone, placed outside the ear, picks up sound from the environment, which then is being processed and sent to a transmitter.

The transmitter connects to a surgically inserted receiver that sits under the skin, just above the ear. From there, the generated sound is translated into electric impulses. A stimulator sends those impulses to different parts of the auditory nerve, bypassing parts of the ear that have been damaged.

"I didn't want the implants at first because it was a big operation. Now I think it's the best thing I've ever done," Curtis says.

He got approved for the implants in 2014 when Curtis was 10 years old and underwent surgery that year.

Two weeks later, the audiologist turned up the volume up for Curtis.

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With help of his bilateral cochlear implants, Curtis is able to hear despite being deaf in both ears.
With help of his bilateral cochlear implants, Curtis is able to hear despite being deaf in both ears.

"There were sounds I've never had heard before, like oil crackling in the frying pan, moreporks or even thunder."

Carmen says her son wouldn't stop asking what the unknown sounds he was suddenly hearing for the first time in his life were.

"Of course, we all take this for granted, but it was all new for Curtis."

Since the sound is artificially generated, hearing through cochlear implants is different from normal acoustic perception.

"Mum sounded like Mickey Mouse at first, and dad like Goofy," Curtis says.

But his hearing adjusted and with time and the help of his speech therapist, Helen Gatman, Curtis overcame communication difficulties he had developed due to his impediment.

"Helen has been working together with Curtis since kindergarten. She has become more a family friend than just a therapist," Carmen says.

Curtis started high school a couple of years ago, and while he got picked on by kids when he was younger, his classmates at Whangārei Boys' High hardly mind that Curtis wears implants behind his ears.

"I sometimes forget my hearing devices in the morning, and my mum would have a full conversation with me until she realises that I can't hear her.

"And when mum is nagging, I just take off the implants and tell her I don't understand what she's saying."

Curtis has to be careful to keep the external part of the implant dry, and he cannot play contact sports like rugby, but Curtis has found other hobbies he's passionate about.

The 15-year-old loves to go out fishing with his dad, Grant, and wants to become a fisheries officer after school. He also enjoys spending time with his sister, Alice, unless he is busy building model trucks.

Helping others who deal with hearing loss has become an important part of Curtis's life. He says people often approach him to ask about the implants and he tries to give advice wherever he can.

JPGFifteen-year old Curtis Robinson is raising awareness for for people with hearing impediments on Loud Shirt Day, September 27. Photos / John Stone
JPGFifteen-year old Curtis Robinson is raising awareness for for people with hearing impediments on Loud Shirt Day, September 27. Photos / John Stone

In the past, Curtis has also given talks in front kids and adults about his condition to share his perspective and inform others.

For the fourth time, Curtis is raising awareness for the deaf community on Loud Shirt Day – a fundraiser for the Hearing House and the Southern Implant Programme.

Both organisations are working with people with hearing disabilities and require funds to offer services to affected families.

Cochlear implants are publicly funded if the patient is assessed eligible. Sometimes families have to afford the devices, at $50,000 a piece, themselves.

Claire Green, Chief Executive of the Hearing House, is working closely with patients, including Curtis, and says the programme offered services that go beyond government funding.

"Part of the work that we do includes reaching out to people and look those who are not able to come to us," Claire says.

The Auckland-based charity does all scans and tests required for getting an implant or hearing aid, and further provides family workshops and music therapy.

"Communication is a basic human need," Claire says. "Cochlear Implants can change lives. To see these barriers break is magic."

Loud Shirt Day is set for September 27. To join, support or donate, visit loudshirtdaynz.org.