The Irishman who restores hearing around the world
Irish World East Midlands correspondent Gerry Molumby met Nottingham’s pioneering ear surgeon Professor Gerard O’Donoghue, a fellow native of Tipperary, who has made his home and family in this country – having arrived “temporarily” after graduating from medical school in Cork in 1969.
Listening to Radió Éireann late into the night recently made me realise how much we take our hearing for granted. I was typing up my notes after meeting Professor Gerry Donoghue, a Tipperary surgeon who is doing pioneering work with cochlear implants – electronic medical devices that replicate the work of damaged parts of the inner ear (cochlea) to provide sound signals to the brain.
At his office at Nottingham’s Queens Medical Centre (QMC), Ear Nose and Throat Department Gerry, set the scene by telling me about an eight-year old patient from Mansfield. He described an infant lying flaccid on an operating table, having barely survived the meningitis which robbed him of his hearing and rendered him totally deaf.
Deafness is not just loss of hearing, it impinges on every aspect of people’s human development, deaf people or people with reduced hearing often suffer from isolation, and poor literacy development, which can, in turn, lead to cognitive impairment.
This young boy’s parents were devastated at the prospect of their perfect child never talking, never hearing a human voice or enjoying music. But a novel technology, an electronics package, offered to rewire his hearing brain and connect him once again to the outside world but it is fraught with risk and uncertainty.
The treatment was controversial, some doctors were critical and some called for such experimental treatment to stop.
The surgeon pioneering the treatment spent many hours of microsurgery placing the cochlear implant – successfully. Days later the device was activated and the child’s hearing life commenced. The boy went to school, earned first class honours at university, and today works as an executive in a large multinational company… all made possible by his cochlear implant.
“That’s why I cycle to work every day,” says the surgeon, Gerry, many years later, a proficient cyclist who commutes by bike between his home in the centre of Nottingham and the city’s QMC Hospital and Medical Training School.
Gerry and I went to the Christian Brothers School (CBS) in Thurles, primary and secondary. He was a few years ahead of me but reminisced about growing up in one of the four sugar beet factory towns in the sixties.
Gerry’s father Liam Ó Donnchú was the primary school teacher in Holyford and a passionate advocate of the Irish language, his mother was Cáit (nee Stapleton) of Piperhill, in Hollyford. Gerry left the CBS for Medical School at UCC in 1969.
Not long into his medical training in Cork and after a rugby game party one weekend he was introduced to Rapahele Saint Olive from Lyon, in France, who was studying English in Cork and who is now his wife. He still goes back to Cork, to sail. He decided to specialise in Ear, Nose and Throat surgery and went to England ‘temporarily’ to complete specialist training. He started in the Royal National Hospital, then located in London’s Soho, and was later appointed to the historic Radcliffe Infirmary.
During this time, Gerry went to study at University Hospital in Boston, USA, working in a unit that specialised in head and neck cancer; his mentor there was a brilliant Irishman, Dr. Stuart Strong who pioneered the use of the laser in surgery of the airway. Following this, he got an opportunity to do a fellowship in hearing research at the University of California in San Francisco.
Here he did a lot of laboratory research on deafness and how we could combat it in humans using electronic stimulation.
Gerry had found his life’s passion: “I never realised that this early technology, which is science and medicine working together, would totally transform the landscape of deafness and bring huge life-opportunities to deaf people,” he says.
Twenty-five years ago Gerry performed his first cochlear implant. Today he performs as many as 120 such operations a year.
“Even at £20,000 each the implant, like a prosthetic limb, does not restore full mobility, the implant does not produce sound as we know it – but has the key ingredients of a speech signal that children get used to, and learn from.
“Along with the child – speech therapists, teachers, siblings, parents/guardians -we all try like a piano tuner to fine tune the implant to the needs of the child.
“With the added help of sign language the children grow up to fully embrace life’s opportunities”. In 1989 following his specialist training, Gerry came to Nottingham University Hospital where he is now the Professor of Otology and Neurotology.
“I still tremble a little when I Iook back on the early days of cochlear implantation and the almost impossible hurdles we faced. Even funding was a problem – the implants were astronomically expensive (and still are) and the NHS would not pay for them.”
To this end Gerry founded a charity, The Ear Foundation, to buy the implants for those children who most needed them. The Charity, one of the largest of its kind in the world, is flourishing – it has implanted 2,000 devices – and is now involved in research and education.
“I have had the good fortune of travelling extensively and either operating or lecturing in every continent and in countless hospitals – it has been such a privilege for me to serve in this way,” he says. In addition to his operations and lectures here in Nottingham Gerry shares his extensive medical expertise in areas with less developed health services.
Cochlear Implant Programmes
A major focus of his work is in India where he has been setting up cochlear implant programmes in Chennai in the south of the continent. He was also very active in Serbia whose health services were in dire straits after the civil war which tore apart the former Yugoslavia.
In recognition he was recently elected an Honorary Professor at the University of Belgrade. Gerry co-founded the National Institute of Health Research’s laboratories for hearing research.
The Royal College of Surgeons of England awarded him its highest honour, a Hunterian Professorship and he has been President of the Otology Section at the Royal Society of Medicine in London. The British Association of ENT Surgeons recently elected him its Master. The Irish ENT Society presented him its Sir William Wilde Memorial Medal which honours the founder of ear surgery – the polymath William Wilde who was Oscar Wilde’s dad.
As to the future Gerry reeled out from memory where his pioneering work will take him over the next months – Paris, Lisbon, San Francisco, Belgrade, Uppsala and Moscow – to lecture, to give hands-on mentoring to other surgeons, and to continue developing the technology of cochlear implants. Reflecting on how his values were inspired by the great Charles Kickham’s Knocknagow Or The Homes of Tipperary, Gerry told me: “I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been able to play my part alleviating one of mankind’s most pernicious disabilities.
“I owe much to my own parents who always valued education and to Thurles CBS who provided me with such brilliant educational opportunities during those crucial formative years.
“Being now a proud father of four children, David, Edwina, Kevin and Olivia and two grandchildren, Aisia and Freya, I know only too well how crucial education is and how profoundly it moulds our lives directions.”