Musician is back on song after 15 years of deafness

TELEGRAPH'Musician Robert Webb who has regained his hearing after 15 years due to a recent operation
TELEGRAPH'Musician Robert Webb who has regained his hearing after 15 years due to a recent operation

A SHEFFIELD musician is set to regain full hearing after being deaf in one ear for almost 15 years.

Choral conductor Robert Webb kept quiet about his disability to choir members and pupils. “Admitting to deafness is a difficult thing to do,” he said.

Now, after an NHS operation at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, which involved drilling a hole in his skull, he is looking forward to hearing properly again – and working with singers and orchestras in the normal way.

Further surgery is required within two to three months to complete the procedure and to attach a bone-anchored hearing aid but Robert has already experienced the benefits as a result of a trial at the start of the year which saw him wearing a metal band on his head.

It was like turning on a switch, he said. The sound was very clear.

He found he could carry out conversations with people on both sides of him and, “most excitingly”, he could hear “a much more balanced sound from my excellent choir.

“One of my worries I had was that music, particularly loud live music, would distort and the frequency range would be too narrow. But this is not the case. It is a revelation.”

Robert, aged 43, is director of Sheffield Chamber Choir and the Sterndale Singers, accompanist to the University Singers Society and Sheffield City Opera and education and training officer for the Royal School of Church Music in Sheffield and South Yorkshire.

He was director of music at St John’s Church, Ranmoor until the summer of last year.

He also teaches at Broomhill Infant School – where pupils were intrigued by the bandages that swathed his head after surgery.

His deafness is traced to a viral infection that virtually knocked out the nerves to his left ear. Minimal residual hearing began to disappear.

Tests at the Royal Hallamshire confirmed that conventional hearing aids will not work but he was told about a procedure that involves having a hole drilled in the head to implant a screw, to which a bone-anchored hearing aid is eventually attached, allowing sound to be transmitted via the skull to the good ear.

The experiment with the metal headband confirmed his suitability for the initial operation, which was carried out under local anaesthetic by a team led by Jaydip Ray, consultant ENT surgeon at the Hallamshire.

Once the wounds have healed and the bone has grown around the screw, Robert will be fitted with the processor, which fits on to the metal screw, probably within three months.

Robert, who lives in Victoria Road, Broomhall, said he had never broadcast his left-sided deafness, although close friends knew in order to avoid talking to him on the wrong side.

“You can imagine that being a musician who is deaf in one ear is difficult. I have not made my deafness publicly known – as a choral conductor, admitting to deafness is a difficult thing to do.

“Possibly even more difficult has been the decision to do something about it which, due to the very visible nature of the solution, brings the subject out into the open.

“However, now I have had the surgery, and this is known by all who I work with, I have received nothing but positive support.”

Not all health areas offer the procedure, he said. “We are lucky to have such a skilled team in Sheffield.”

Robert added: “Deafness is something which is very difficult to come to terms with and the surgery I have just had is a scary prospect for many who contemplate it. A positive story like mine can only be a good thing.”

Mr Ray said he was pleased with the positive results in Robert’s case. “This is a device that is implanted using a technique called osseointegration (bonding between bone and pure titanium) to help with the hearing in individuals where a conventional hearing aid is unsuitable.

“It bypasses the faulty hearing mechanism by utilising the sound conduction properties of bone to deliver the sound signal directly to the inner ear on the same and/or the opposite side. We have developed a new approach and the results have been very encouraging.

“This is available to patients all ages and we have restored hearing deficit in children as young as six. We have used the same technology for simultaneous prosthetic reconstruction of cosmetic ear defects as well.”