Saturday 21 July 2018

'When I heard the waves crashing on the beach, I jumped away in fright' - Irish vet on overcoming rare hearing difficulty

Despite struggling to hear what was being said in the classroom, Shona Maguire still managed to achieve her long-held goal of becoming a vet. She tells Joy Orpen about the ups and downs of that journey

Shona Maguire. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Shona Maguire. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

The first time Shona Maguire (31) heard the sound of waves, she nearly jumped out of her skin. Given that this was a relatively recent event, it's safe to assume that this young vet has faced enormous challenges over the years.

Shona's problems began as a toddler, growing up in Swords, Co Dublin, when she experienced recurring chest infections. "There was a lot of back and forth to doctors," she recalls, "until finally, they looked in my ears." What they found was a worrying growth in one of her ears.

Eventually, she was diagnosed with cholesteatoma. This occurs when abnormal cells collect deep inside the ear. These non-cancerous growths can cause a discharge from the ears, hearing loss, vertigo, and tinnitus. If left untreated, they can cause permanent hearing loss and, in very rare cases, may result in potentially serious conditions such as meningitis.

The usual treatment for cholesteatoma is surgery. However, when Shona had her first intervention as a two-year-old, that specific procedure was new in Ireland.

"We were pioneers," she says. "I was one of the first, if not the very first, to have it in this country. Before the operation, my parents were presented with worst-case scenarios. For example, they were warned that I might lose my hearing altogether."

Thankfully, the surgery was successful as far as the growths were concerned; but they had already irreparably damaged her inner ear, causing some hearing loss.

The following year, Shona had to go through that ordeal all over again when she got a similar growth in her other ear. These problems caused her to take longer than most children to find her voice. "I needed intense speech therapy because I was missing so much of what I should have been hearing," she explains.

Over the years, Shona had about six significant surgical procedures to reshape her ear canals, which had been damaged by the growths. "They were scarred and too narrow; they needed to be widened to prevent infections," she says. "I also had a number of other, more minor procedures."

She was treated at St James's Hospital in the early years and then at Beaumont Hospital. Understandably, in spite of all the worthy medical interventions, her hearing was partially damaged. So, she was supplied with hearing aids by the public health system. As the years progressed, her main problem was hearing what was being said in the classroom and during examinations. Because the old-style hearing aids were so basic, Shona was forced to fall back on lip-reading a lot of the time, which placed an additional strain on her, educationally.

Nonetheless, once she went to secondary school, Shona began to shine. And even though she had a natural ability for maths, she was shocked, one day, to discover long division was just "gobbledegook" to her. "It must have been one of the many times I was off sick, when they did that at school," she explains. Fortunately, she was able to catch up and did extremely well in her Leaving Certificate.

Another problem for Shona was the appearance of mobile phones. "I could hear all these phones ringing in my hearing aids," she says. "Because the hearing aids the public health system supplied were so basic, they amplified everything. The constant ringing drove me crazy. That went on until we eventually persuaded the authorities to upgrade me."

What is notable about Shona is that she knew from a very young age that she wanted to become a vet and she never allowed her hearing problems to sway her from that path. "I was very focused all through secondary school," she admits. So, she had no problem securing a place at UCD's prestigious School of Veterinary Medicine.

Shona says that even though it was tough going, she was determined to succeed. "In second year, our day would start at 8am and end at 5pm, often with no lunch break factored in; then you had to study," she explains. "In fifth year, you're basically working as an unpaid vet - long hours, night shifts and weekends - and then you also have to study. But I guess that's a fair representation of what you face when you qualify."

But college wasn't all plain sailing. In 2010, in her final year, Shona woke one morning to find the world was spinning. Her mother rushed her to Beaumont Hospital A&E, so she could be seen by her usual ear, nose and throat consultant. He identified another benign growth.

"The cholesteatoma was back," Shona recalls. "We'd always known this could happen, but still it was a shock. I ended up in hospital for a month as the growth had eroded the inner ear. They had to remove a lot of scar tissue and do a bone graft to repair the damage. That was in January, and my finals were in May."

Nonetheless, Shona passed with flying colours and is now working as a locum, while pursuing her dream of having her own practice, which will incorporate ram-and-bull fertility testing. She will undoubtedly be well supported by her partner, farmer John Kearney. They live in Bagenalstown, Co Carlow, with a cat, two dogs and lots of farm animals.

About four years ago, Shona decided to try the private sector for hearing aids and went to Hidden Hearing. "It was an unbelievable experience," she says. "The audiologist spent a lot of time ascertaining which areas were most troublesome for me with my hearing. He really went into it in depth. In the public system, it was a case of, 'Here are your hearing aids, now off you go'.

"This time my two high-tech digital hearing aids, which were programmed specifically for me, fitted perfectly," she says. "That's the first time I remember two fitting so well at the same time. Once they were in place, I heard the audiologist's footsteps on the carpet and that was a sound I'd never heard before.

"And when we went to a restaurant that night, I was amazed to be able to follow a normal conversation within a group. The main problem for people with hearing difficulties, is that the background noises get all mushed up together. But apparently, modern technology can deal with that."

And when she went to the beach, Shona got yet another surprise. "When I heard the waves crashing on the beach, I jumped away in fright. I'd never heard that noise before," she says smiling brightly.

For more information contact Hidden Hearing. See hiddenhearing.ie and also campaignforbetterhearing.ie

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