Rare hearing surgery greenlit for Grimsby couple

Jeff and Debbie Gifford of Grimsby Debbie and Jeff Gifford of Grimsby are candidates for a rare second hearing surgery. Photo provided by the Giffords

Christmas has come early for Grimsby couple Debbie and Jeff Gifford in the form of a rare second surgery that will let them hear better than ever before.

The Giffords will both be receiving their second cochlear implant, an electronic device that partially restores hearing. Bilateral cochlear implant surgery, as it is called, means they will have an implant in both ears.

Last week they received a call from Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, informing them that their bilateral cochlear implant surgeries, which were put on hold due to COVID-19, will move ahead.

They are now hunkered down, completing a mandatory 14-day quarantine before the procedures in Toronto. Nonetheless, they’re celebrating the rare opportunity.

Most don’t know implants are an option

The Giffords told Niagara Info that most people with hearing loss don’t know that cochlear implants are an option. Nor, do they understand that they’re fully funded by the government. But what’s most unique about their situation, is that they’ll both be receiving a rare second cochlear implant.

“We’re super excited because it’s not common for adults to get two implants,” said Debbie. For many years, most adults would only be granted one. But that changed last year when the government increased its funding for bilateral implants.

In the past, most adults with serious hearing loss would only receive an implant for one ear. This was because waitlists for cochlear implants have been long. So to give a person two meant the waitlist would be much longer for first-timers.

Bilateral surgeries, meaning one in each ear, were only usually offered to children. “The only way most adults could receive bilateral implants is if they were selected to be part of a research study. Cochlear implant manufacturers sponsored them,” said Jeff.

But in 2018, Health Quality Ontario, under the guidance of the Ontario Health Technology Advisory Committee, concluded that more public funding for bilateral cochlear implantation should be offered. The government took up the recommendation and now provides additional funding for bilateral surgeries.

Since receiving their first cochlear implant, both Jeff and Debbie have become serious advocates for the procedure. In 2019, they were featured in a TVO documentary, HUMAN+ The Future of Our Senses. Last year, they also shared their story in an educational commercial.

See: Jeff and Debbie Gifford in a TVO Documentary here (starts at timestamp -10:31): https://www.tvo.org

Both Debbie and Jeff lived with hearing aids for most of their lives, but neither regrets trading them for implants which “are dramatically better than a hearing aid,” Debbie said. A surgery to remove her tonsils as a kid damaged her hearing. And as she got older, her hearing continued to decline. Jeff was born with a hearing impairment.

Before implants “I couldn’t hear (Debbie) whisper to me. Now it’s kind of cool, like oh, that’s what Debbie sounds like,” Jeff told Niagara Info.

Can’t read lips with COVID masks

COVID-19 has complicated life for people with hearing impairment because hearing aids don’t fully restore hearing and they have to rely on reading lips. Of course, that is simply not possible when people wear masks.

“My brother has hearing aids, it’s tough to function with them. (A person with hearing aids) would have to say to a store clerk, ‘Um, could you please remove your mask?’ …if there is a barrier up, a person wouldn’t be able to do that,” said Jeff. “They might have to bring a pad of paper and a pen or use their phone” to communicate, added Debbie.

Yet, the couple explained, that so many people don’t know to ask their doctors about cochlear implants. They simply don’t know it’s an option, and that it’s fully covered by the province.

Even when they are made aware, they are fearful. “People have the misconception that it’s invasive brain surgery. It’s not, you’re basically bypassing,” said Jeff. The implant is placed in the skull. The surgery is fast too. It only lasts about two hours.

Of course, the post-surgery process is also a critical component. Candidates approved for a cochlear implant surgery must be willing to train their brain to work with their new device. So prior to selection for surgery, they must demonstrate that they’ll be active in life and use the implant.

The couple urges anyone considering a cochlear implant to do their research. They say if you have significant hearing loss to speak to doctors, talk to people you know who’ve done it, and educate yourself.

The couple did a lot of research before they said yes to their first surgeries. And they’re glad they did because their lives were radically transformed in so many ways.

Debbie “hadn’t talked to her mom on the phone 40 years,” said Jeff. That’s one ability most people have that she didn’t until surgery.

They both understand how precious it is to be able to hear fully. They also remember what it was like having to compensate and live life with hearing struggles. “Hearing loss affects everything…your job, your career, your education… your connection with people. Many people with hearing loss can’t enjoy many of the things they want to enjoy,” said Jeff.

“Many people could benefit from a cochlear implant but they don’t know they actually have the option,” he added.

For more information on cochlear implants visit this info page on the Sunnybrook website or the Canadian Academy of Audiology, and talk to your primary care physician.