12 December 2007

When Bill Raymond graduates as an audiologist from The University of Queensland on Friday (December 14), it will be an incredible achievement for the 24-year-old, who was born with a severe hearing disability.

He will be the first cochlear implant recipient to become an audiologist in Australia.

A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted device which transforms sound into electrical impulses, which are then transmitted to the brain for decoding.

Mr Raymond received the implant when he was 13, after his hearing deteriorated and he was no longer assisted by hearing aids.

“I was extremely unhappy. I felt very isolated. I had been doing quite well at school, but now the teachers didn’t bother talking to me. I just read a book in the corner and my friends got sick of repeating the punch line to their jokes. I stopped going to their houses and I was painfully shy,” he said.

His mother Dorothy, a former teacher, had already proven wrong the doctors who said her youngest son would never talk or attend school.

“After I was diagnosed at 15 months old, she threw convention to the winds and taught me herself. She leant over my cot and talked to me constantly and I began to try to talk,” he said.

When the earlier assistance provided by hearing aids was obviously no longer enough, his mother heard about cochlear implants and urged her son to explore the idea.

Initial reticence was blown away after Mr Raymond met implant recipient 11-year-old Julia Keger. He watched as she held a conversation with several people and then spoke on the phone. These were everyday skills that seemed unobtainable to him at that time.

Out of pocket expenses for receiving the cochlear implant were paid for by a donation of $5,000 from the local Rotary Club in the Darling Downs town of Pittsworth – an act of generosity he will never forget.

Mr Raymond described the experience of receiving the implant, which in 1996 involved numerous interviews with health professionals, a two-hour operation (now performed via keyhole surgery), sickness from the anaesthetic and the first overwhelming attempts to turn on the implant, as “an ordeal”.

“The first time the implant was turned on, Mum spoke to me. Her voice should have been the most natural sound in the world, but it sounded like breaking glass and I cried, and they stopped to let me recover my composure,” Mr Raymond recalled.

But very quickly, the implant enabled his brain to make sense of sounds coming via this new source.

“Within a month or two I was going to friends’ houses again. Just in that short amount of time! It was pretty spectacular.”

Mr Raymond’s achievements since that time have been no less spectacular.

“I went from being the kid who talked to no one to Boy School Captain of Pittsworth State High School. I won English subject prizes and competitions, and received a Young Citizen of the Year Award for the Pittsworth Shire.”

Mr Raymond finished school with excellent results, including an OP of 3 and an “A” in the dreaded Queensland Core Skills Test. He had already decided to study audiology at The University of Queensland and completed the required undergraduate degree, in his case a Bachelor of Arts (majoring in psychology) in 2004. When he graduates on Friday, December 14, it will be an historic achievement.

Audiologist and Acting Head of UQ’s School of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences, Professor Louise Hickson, said Mr Raymond’s determination to become an audiologist and success in graduating from the Master of Audiology program was inspiring.

“Being hearing impaired himself, Bill knows the daily struggles of a deaf person living in a ‘hearing world’. He’ll make a great contribution to the audiology profession,” Professor Hickson said.

Mr Raymond said he had to prove himself capable of the demands of the profession.

“I felt I had to prove myself and I wasn’t given an armchair ride. My teachers didn’t give me an inch and really put me through my paces,” he said.

Mr Raymond was pleased to be able to reconnect with Julia Kreger during his studies. Their families remain friends and Julia agreed to take part in research he was conducting.

While obviously proud of his achievements, he is quick to acknowledge the major influences that have helped shape his success.

“I don’t pretend I’m the ‘be all and end all’. I’m a fair example of what you can accomplish. I’m proud, but I know I’ve been fortunate to have the people around me who supported me, particularly my family - especially my mother - and good friends. I was also lucky to be born in an age where the technology is available.”

If not for gift of sound delivered by this amazing Australian invention, Mr Raymond is convinced he would be a different man.

“I’m extremely happy. Otherwise I would be on a disability pension, doing unskilled labour, never reaching my full potential and only able to communicate with a handful of people.

“I want to be a good clinician, bring empathy and understanding to my role and make a difference to people that would otherwise be affected by a severe disability,” he said.

Mr Raymond will begin work as an audiologist at the Hear & Say Centre, in Brisbane, in January, with which he has had a long association. He’ll be working with cochlear recipients aged from infants to teenagers.

Everytime Mr Raymond meets with children and their parents, this beautifully spoken young man will be paying forward the gift of hope he received as a 13-year-old boy - from Julia “who could talk on the phone”.

Mr Raymond will graduate at a ceremony at The UQ Centre, St Lucia Campus at 6pm on Friday, 14 December, 2007.

Media inquiries: Faculty Communications Officer, Marlene McKendry (0401 99 6847).