Safe and sound

Smallest processor for cochlear implants offers security to sportsmen

Many teenagers struggle with questions of self-worth and identity. For final-year undergraduate Bryan Chong, this was made worse by the conspicuous audio processor he wore behind his right ear.

The 24-year-old, who was born with profound hearing loss in both ears, recalled how a schoolmate once flicked the device off his ear and it fell six storeys to the ground.

Thankfully, it could still be used. The same schoolmate helped him retrieve the processor, but some damage could not be undone.

He said: "I was very upset as I was reminded of how dependent I was on the hearing device. The moment it was flicked off, I had no sound."

The device may have contributed to his insecurities but it has also changed his life for the better.

Mr Chong once doubted his own abilities because of his hearing condition. Now, he swims in inter-hall competitions at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), goes to the gym and enjoys cheerleading.


Mr Chong performing cheerleading stunts with team-mate Serene Ng. He also goes to the gym and swims in NTU's inter-hall competitions. PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHUN HENG

As a cheerleader, he performs stunts by throwing and catching a partner. "There's a risk of my device falling off, but it's a calculated risk."

He used a hearing aid before he was fitted with a cochlear implant at the age of four. The implant works with an audio processor to help the user hear. Both have magnets to hold the processor in place.

The processor picks up sound and converts it into digital information. The implant, which is surgically inserted under the skin behind the ear, then sends electrical signals to the inner ear, where nerve fibres are stimulated and information is sent to the brain.

Mr Chong was fitted with a Kanso audio processor for his cochlear implant last year. This is his third audio processor.

According to ear, nose and throat specialist Low Wong Kein, the Kanso processor, currently the smallest available, measures only 3.5cm. The size is not only more discreet, but it can also give people a sense of security when they take part in sports, especially where there is contact.

The device is more secure because of an accessory, known as the restrainer, that is connected to the processor and clipped to his hair, Mr Chong said. "If it gets flicked off, it will still remain," he said, detaching his processor to demonstrate how it can hang by the restrainer. "Unless my whole head of hair falls off, which is quite unlikely."

The device has a feature that improves the user's ability to hear in different environments by automatically adjusting the volume. In a noisy place, it will amplify the sounds within a certain radius so that the user can hear people nearby.

OPENING UP ABOUT HEARING LOSS

Mr Chong's openness about his condition is something that has come with time.

SOUND INVESTMENT

For someone who can't hear anything to be hearing an array of sounds is amazing.

MR BRYAN CHONG, on how the cochlear implant and processor, though expensive, have improved his life.

Despite having used a behind- the-ear processor since he was 14, he said he did not want to try hard at anything. "I felt it was pointless. I linked any failure or setback to my hearing condition," he said.

When his grades suffered, he had to switch classes in Secondary Three but his new classmates treated him as an equal. He said: "I felt happier because I was able to have more friends.

"I told myself 'Why don't I try to put in more effort?' So I paid more attention in class and studied hard. My test results were not too bad."

He gave credit to his mother, who chose to work part-time as a department store buyer to take her only child to early intervention programmes and practised talking with him every day to help him recognise words and speak better.

Mr Chong found that the device picked up different sounds and frequencies well. An implant costs more than $30,000 and audio processors vary in price. Subsidies of up to 90 per cent are available under SG Enable's Assistive Technology Fund.

The Kanso processor alone cost $8,000 to $12,000, but Mr Chong said the pros outweigh the cons.

"For someone who can't hear anything to be hearing an array of sounds is amazing," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2017, with the headline 'Safe and sound'. Print Edition | Subscribe