The Bionic Ear

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Anthony Cignarella is just your average 31 year-old academic. He has a degree in Applied Science (Occupational Therapy), a Masters in Nursing and an avid piano player.  But what’s not so average is that fact that he was born with a severe hearing impairment.

Originally from Sydney, the Melbourne-based Intensive Care Nurse, clinical educator and university lecturer may be a self-confessed over-achiever. But Anthony says that he owes much of his success in overcoming the challenges of his hearing loss to early intervention and the support of his family, friends, teachers, peers and of course hard work, persistence and self-determination.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t until Anthony attended preschool at the age of three that a problem was identified.  “Apparently I didn’t pay much attention during story time,” he said.

Anthony was then referred to an ENT surgeon and formally diagnosed with a congenital sensorineural hearing impairment as a result of Mondini Syndrome – a malformation of the cochlear in the inner ear.  He was fitted with hearing aids and referred to The Shepherd Centre for intensive early intervention in speech recognition and hearing.

Unfortunately, in June 1999, Anthony’s hearing deteriorated to a profound loss.  His world plunged into silence and life was suddenly very different.  As a result, Anthony was referred to the Sydney Cochlear Implant Centre to meet Cochlear Implant Surgeon, Associate Professor Katherine Birman.  Following a six-month period of extensive candidacy evaluation, he received his ultimate Christmas present – the gift of sound.

Anthony was amongst the very first group of adolescents in Australia to receive the Bionic Ear.  However, this was no easy task.  Headaches and an inability to distinguish daily sounds were commonplace.

“It was isolating at times,” he says.

“There’s a difference between hearing and listening. To listen, I had to concentrate hard and lip-read all day – it was exhausting.” 

Despite the difficulties, Anthony attended mainstream schooling from K-12, completing the NSW HSC in 2002.  During this time he also joined St. John Ambulance (NSW) providing volunteer first aid at large community events.  He has served at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games as well as providing pre-hospital care during the Black Saturday Victorian Bushfire Emergency.

Anthony continues to undertake advocacy work for The Shepherd Centre and Cochlear Implant Centre as well as community education during hearing awareness week and stresses “not to take your ears for granted, see an audiologist if you’re having trouble hearing”.

He wanted to ensure that all people with disabilities or life challenges knew that hurdles could be overcome with hard work and determination. “There were many barriers to overcome,” he says. “I hope that my journey will inspire and encourage people of all ages and walks of life to conquer their goals even in the face of adversity with determination, persistence and patience; if I can do it so can you.”  

Anthony also sings the praises of Cochlear Implant inventor Professor Graeme Clark. “He’s done such a remarkable thing to be able to offer other people a second chance. I wouldn’t have been able to pursue this career if it wasn’t for his vision to break the silence of many worlds.  Losing a sense, only to have it brought back, is a priceless gift.”

And speaking of music, does he still play the piano? “Of course,” he smiles. “It keeps me out of trouble, but only when I can find the time.”

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