Shirley Ackehurst


'Cochlear pioneer celebrates 30 years of hearing'

Shirley Ackehurst is 74. A mother and grandmother who loves working in her garden. She's also a medical pioneer whose story is one of perseverance, loss, heartbreak and triumph that she relays with such poignancy, humour and courage it is impossible not to be moved and inspired by her.

Thirty years ago, on 15 April 1986, Shirley (then 44) became South Australia’s first Cochlear™ Implant recipient. She was very much a pioneer, at a time when Professor Graeme Clark’s invention was still a bit of a mystery.

But her story began three decades earlier, in 1956, when she contracted mumps at the age of 11. Shirley didn't know it immediately, but her world had changed forever. "I didn't realise I had lost my hearing at first," she recalls. "When I went back to school, everyone seemed to be mumbling and I couldn't understand them. I thought something had happened to everyone else. Not for one minute did I think something had happened to me."

It was the adaptability of childhood that allowed her deafness to remain undetected for several years. "Although I didn't realise it, I started to lip read straight away and really no-one noticed that I couldn't hear very well," Shirley says. "I still passed my tests and kept up with my school work."

As a country kid from Corop West in Victoria, Shirley attended a boarding school for two years. It was when she returned home that her parents began to notice that she didn't answer them if she wasn't looking at them. "They decided to take me to a hearing specialist and I believe we were all shocked when he told us I was very deaf and I had only been coping by lip reading," she recalls.

Then came the blow. For as long as Shirley could remember she had wanted to be a nurse. "I was due to have a medical exam after I won a Nursing Bursary in Year 3 (now Year 9). When the doctor tested my hearing, of course he found out how deaf I was and my treasured bursary was cancelled. I was shattered."

Shirley was now very shy, self-conscious and began to feel isolated, lonely and miserable. "Social outings were fraught because I couldn't lip read in poor light in the evening," she says. "I started to hide my deafness and pretended I could hear, which led to all kinds of misunderstandings and even more embarrassment."

Shirley received her first hearing aid at 15. "It was large and heavy, like a metal cigarette box," she recalls. "I wouldn't wear it, partly because it didn't help at all and partly because I felt too ashamed to wear it. After I was married I tried out a more modern aid and it still did not help me to hear much better. I eventually gave up on it as my hearing gradually got worse."

Then came the 1980s and Shirley read about Professor Graeme Clark's early work with Cochlear Implants. "I was unable to hear my daughters' and husband's voices by now, so this information about the implant gave me hope." So when a Cochlear Implant clinic opened at Flinders Medical Centre in 1985, Shirley couldn't wait to get a referral to implant surgeon Dr Dean Beaumont. "I saw Dr Beaumont in late 1985 and received my implant April 15, 1986."

That first processor was a heavy metal container, a little larger than a packet of cigarettes that Shirley wore on a belt. A far cry from the light, unobtrusive N6 processor she has today. But it gave her the gift of sound.

"It wasn't until I arrived home and I heard my footsteps on our polished wooden floors and that I felt very excited," she recalls. "The sound anchored me back into the hearing world. My hearing came in slowly and I remember on the third morning after switch-on I was buttering the toast for breakfast and I could hear the crackling sound that makes - more excitement. Small everyday sounds filled me with so much excitement. The environmental sounds were the ones I loved most in those early days, rain on the roof, the birdcalls, the "click" of my little dog's toenails on the polished wooden floor."

As South Australia's first Cochlear Implant recipient, Shirley was asked to do a lot of public speaking about her experience. "I would run a mile from this before my implant," she says. "In fact, I'd never made a speech in my life before. I wrote a book, Broken Silence and I went on an author's tour of Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney with numerous radio, newspaper and TV interviews including the Ray Martin Show. I volunteered for committees and helped to start up a support group: Cochlear Implant Club and Advisory Association, South Australia. With my friend Rhonda Smith (another implant recipient), we spoke to people before their implants, visited them in hospital and supported them in the early weeks after their implant. I also helped to raise funds for Better Hearing Australia.”

Shirley says her life would have been very different during the past 30 years if she did not have her Cochlear Implant. "I would have been isolated and lonely," she says. "I would have avoided social situations. I would have existed in my own silent world."

She says the greatest gift her implant has given her is the ease of communication with family and friends as well as the sounds of nature. "One of my greatest joys is to have my breakfast outside every morning and listen to the birds," Shirley says. “It has given me the joy of hearing the birds, rain on the roof, wind in the trees and music. It has given me confidence and self-worth. It has anchored me back in the real world. It has made my life warm and happy.”

But for Shirley the most beautiful sounds of all are those of her grandchildren's voices. "My youngest grandson, Harrison, who is three years old, inspects my processor every time I see him and tests it out by saying different words in my ear. He is quite fascinated with it."