When Olivia Strang’s teacher said “boy, that girl can talk”, her mum couldn’t have been more delighted.
The confident youngster is profoundly deaf in both ears and has two cochlear implants.
It is this confidence, her ability to make new friends and speak to adults, that will put her in good stead when she heads to Austria in April with her parents and older sisters Sophie and Hannah.
The trip is the result of Olivia winning a children’s global inventors competition run by MED-EL, an Austrian-based company that specialises in implantable hearing solutions.
Olivia has achieved a lot in her nine years, however, her road to a world of sound and spoken language hasn’t been a smooth one.
She was born to mum Alice Henry and dad Richard Strang, during “an unplanned home delivery” in Wellington.
It was before the days of the newborn hearing screening programme and Alice says she “thought something was not quite right in those early weeks”.
“But I got fobbed off.”
By about the age of nine months Olivia was not sitting up unsupported and was referred to a specialist who observed that, amongst other issues, she wasn’t responding to her name.
The family was referred to an audiologist and when Olivia was just over the age of one she was diagnosed with moderate to severe hearing loss and given hearing aids.
The aids worked well for about three months, but then Alice, Richard and Olivia’s preschool teachers noticed that the toddler was no longer responding.
Olivia was tested at Wellington Hospital Audiology and it was confirmed that she was profoundly deaf.
“As soon as we received the diagnosis we knew that the CI route was the right option for Olivia and our family.
“We had already had a chance to connect with other parents of CI children in Wellington and knew Ben Smith and his family in Auckland - so were very familiar with the amazing results possible,” Alice says.
“While we had concerns about the risks of surgery, upgradability of the technology and the costs involved in paying for her second ear, we were very sure that we were making the right decision for our daughter and family.”
From there things moved swiftly – but Mother Nature made sure the road to cochlear implant surgery was not a smooth one.
A referral was made to the Southern Cochlear Implant Programme (SCIP) in Christchurch and the family was due to fly there on September 5, 2010 for an appointment the next day.
However, on September 4, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck the South Island at 4.35am.
Amongst the confusion, the family made contact with SCIP and was told that despite the destruction caused by the earthquake Olivia’s appointments would still go ahead.
“We flew down and it felt like everyone else was going in the other direction,” Alice says.
As a result of the earthquake the family experienced many aftershocks, their original surgeon couldn’t make it to their appointment and the hospital was shut to outpatients soon after Olivia’s appointment with the implant surgeon.
And when Olivia’s surgery was held at the end of September the surgeons had to work through aftershocks.
Alice and Richard took comfort from the professionals they dealt with and the advice and support offered to them by other cochlear implant families.
“We knew it was going to be a lot of work and it was not an easy road, but we knew we were lucky to have this technology and option open to us. Time was of the essence and we just wanted to get on and get underway as fast as we could, particularly given Olivia was fast approaching her second birthday.”
When Olivia’s bilateral implants were fitted on October 19, 2010, she was the first paediatric patient in New Zealand to receive devices made by MED-EL.
One was government funded and the other was paid for by the family.
And so began the back and forth trips from Wellington to Christchurch. There were no cochlear implant services available in Wellington at the time Olivia was implanted, so the family made 12 trips south for mapping and other appointments in the first 12 months.