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22nd May 2017

‘Pushy parents’ saved son’s hearing

21 years ago, Max became the first child in the world to have two cochlear implants. Now he’s a rugby-playing college student living a full and busy life

When Max Roeder was born, the chances of him speaking his native German – let alone giving an interview in fluent English – appeared to be very low.

His parents knew something wasn’t quite right. Eight weeks after Max’s birth, they feared that he had hearing problems, which his mother suspected were because she had the flu during her pregnancy.

Doctors disagreed. They performed some basic tests – like clapping to see if the baby would respond. When th clapped, Max responded. ‘Looking back, I was probably just reacting to seeing the doctors clapping. I couldn’t really hear them,’ he says. ‘But my parents kept searching for other medical opinions and, when I was six months old, a doctor officially told them that I was deaf.’

It may have been difficult news to hear but Max’s parents were determined to do the very best for their young son. From time to time they took him to a kindergarten for deaf children, and they saw various specialists about how to manage children with hearing difficulties.

Then, serendipity struck.

‘My mother found an information leaflet on the floor of a doctor’s office,’ Max recalls. ‘It explained that it was sometimes possible to help deaf people to hear.’

This was big news. It was 1994 and cochlear implants – small devices that replace a part of the inner ear which is essential for hearing – were still relatively new. The implant consists of a microphone which picks up sound waves and a speech processor that converts these waves into an electrical signal.

‘If my mother hadn’t found that leaflet, I may still be deaf today.’

However, getting a cochlear implant for Max was far from straightforward. The procedure was primarily performed in adults who had lost their hearing, and doctors were reluctant to try it in a young child.

The family saw specialists in Hanover and Frankfurt, conscious that crucial months of their son’s linguistic development were flying by.

‘My parents kept pushing and pushing until, finally, they were told when I was almost two years old that doctors in Frankfurt would perform the operation.’

The operation was a success. Max could hear. He adapted well to the implant and learned quickly. The impact on his quality of life and his future prospects were profound – he would be able to hear, to speak, and would have the chance to attend a mainstream school.

But his parents refused to settle for that. If one implant could deliver such a big improvement, why not two?

‘Back then, nobody had implants on both sides,’ he says. ‘Doctors didn’t know whether having two devices would lead to interference or cause a conflict for the brain.’

But if you’ve learned anything about Max’s parents, you’ll know they have great perseverance. After two years of knocking on doors and calling doctors – and after having the procedure approved by a medical ethics committee – he had a second operation.

Just a few days before his fourth birthday, Max became the first child ever to have cochlear implants on both sides. The question was: would it make any difference?

The big moment came – they switched on the second device. The surgery had worked but it was too soon to be sure how his new hearing would settle. A month later, doctors tested his hearing.

‘Four weeks after the second side was switched on, my hearing had improved by 40%,’ says Max. ‘I had some language development training a couple of times a week until I was six or seven years old. After that my development was pretty normal.’

His parents were convinced that he should attend mainstream kindergarten and primary school. After that, Max went on to high school and now studies computer science at college.

When he’s not studying, he’s playing rugby and living a full and normal life – and telling his story to highlight the benefits of cochlear implants. ‘I want to make sure that parents know that this may be an option for their child.’

While the history of medtech is packed with stories of doctors, engineers and their bright ideas, there are also countless tales of parents who refused to take ‘no’ for an answer – and accelerated medical progress along the way.

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