LAST Christmas, Libby Welsh couldn’t even join in a family conversation over their turkey because she was deaf.
It was then that the 14-year-old, from Sonning Common, made the life-changing decision to have a “risky” operation to restore her hearing.
She had previously admitted to feeling lonely because of her disability but this year she was able to fully enjoy the festive season after being fitted with bilateral cochlear implants in both ears.
Libby, a pupil at Chiltern Edge School, said: “This Christmas was a lot different from last year. I was a lot more excited about it because I was able to hear Christmas songs and carols better than I did before.”
Libby was four when she diagnosed with a moderate hearing impairment and was fitted with a hearing aid.
She said this led to social exclusion because she couldn’t go to the cinema or anywhere with background music, including ice skating, bowling or shopping.
School life was also particularly tough and Libby had to take a lot of time off due to tiredness caused by the concentration required for lip-reading.
She used dancing and acting as a form of escapism but still suffered from depression.
During a family get together last Christmas, Libby left the adults’ table to sit with younger members of her family, including her nine-year-old niece Rosie.
She said: “I said, ‘right, let’s write a Christmas letter’ and Rosie came up to me with her letter asking me to check it over. I sat down and read it and it said ‘Dear Santa, I don’t want a lot for Christmas but there’s one thing I would really like and that’s that my auntie will get her hearing back’.
“It made me cry a little bit because it was so adorable. All the children said they wanted me to get my hearing back.” It was over that Christmas holiday that Libby decided to go ahead with the surgery having previously been against the idea.
She recalled: “I was just sitting down feeling particularly bored. I was really tired because of all the holiday schoolwork I had been given and all the children were demanding me to play with them. I couldn’t join in with the adults who were talking or the children because they all talk so fast.
“I was feeling very depressed and thought ‘this isn’t exactly fair on me so, you know what, having a cochlear implant wouldn’t be so bad, I guess, because I will be able to hear a bit more’.
“I had been scared of the idea six months earlier when the option came up. They played me a couple of clips of what it would sound like when they first turn it on and I ran a mile.” The five-hour operation took place at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford in September. It involved placing electrodes inside the inner ear which send electrical signals along the hearing nerve to the brain, which learns to recognise the sounds.
Libby admitted to “freaking out” before the surgery but was comforted on the day by her parents Hilary and Alex and friend Ellen Arthur, who has the implants herself. Before she went into the operating theatre her mother handed her a brown book full of “good luck” messages from friends. Many of them told the teenager how much they admired her bravery.
It was a gamble for Libby because if the surgery did not work, it was likely she would have been left without her natural hearing.
Afterwards, she wasn’t expected to hear anything for a couple of weeks until the implant was switched on but when her mother closed the lid on her bedside pedal bin, she heard it.
Mrs Welsh said: “This was a surprise because we thought the operation might not work and the hearing she had left might be lost. I can’t even describe the feeling. For anyone whose child goes in for an operation, it brings the fragility of life closer to home. I know it was a very safe operation but these thoughts still went through my mind. We were all scared.”
Libby also lost her sense of taste for several days and was coughing up blood caused by a tube inserted into her throat during the surgery. Every sound was like a “scratchy white noise” to her until doctors switched on the implants and then tuned them every few days.
Within four weeks of the operation Libby was hearing sounds naturally.
She went to school for the start of the new term just two weeks after the operation. She said this was a “horrible experience” as she was just getting used to the implants and could only manage one hour per day initially. Even now, she has to take days off due to exhaustion.
Libby’s social life has improved because there are now more opportunities available to her and she was even able to watch films on TV over Christmas. She said: “Things are definitely looking a bit better. I don’t struggle with cinemas anymore. I went to see Thor, which is very high on the action, and it was nice. I picked up about 65 per cent of what was being said.
“I used to struggle with background noise quite a lot with things like the radio but that’s all improved. Apart from all the pressure from school, it’s going fairly well.It’s nice to go somewhere and be able to call my mum to ask for a lift and it makes her feel better. I also call my sister a lot.”
Libby continues to dance with the Stagecoach group at Chiltern Edge and has been told by her drama teacher that she is one of the best actresses she has worked with. She took part in the school’s Christmas performance of Bugsy Malone as a dancer and narrator. During one dance, an implant fell out and she found herself at the other end of the stage relying on vibrations to follow the rhythm, just as she used to have to do.
Libby dreams of becoming a dancer and actress but also wants to visit the friends she has made online.
She said: “I feel a lot more happy and confident and I think I definitely made the right decision but I would say to anyone in the same situation not to do anything that you aren’t comfortable with because it’s a decision that you can make at any point in your life.
“It doesn’t matter what your situation is or how much you think you do or don’t deserve it, it’s always an option available to you. If you think it’s something that could help you make your quality of life better then nothing should stop you.”