Suzanna Hext: Para swimmer hears again after 'life-changing' surgery

By Sophie HurcomBBC Sport
Suzanna Hext in hospital after getting a cochlear implant fitted
Hext, who has had a hearing impairment since birth, hears for the first time with her implant in hospital

"I heard this beep, beep. I just heard sound," said Paralympic swimmer Suzanna Hext as she described the "life-changing" surgery that allowed her to hear again.

Hext was born with a hearing impairment and over the years her hearing ability deteriorated. While she was once able to use hearing aids, gradually, as she relied more on lip reading, they became redundant to the point she could not hear anything.

In November, the 33-year-old had a cochlear implant fitted successfully in her right ear.

"It sounds very weird; even though I've heard words before, my brain hasn't processed words for a long time," Hext told BBC Points West.

Yet the operation was far from straightforward.

Surgery to fit the right ear implant and perform a blind sac closure on the left - a surgical technique to close the ear and prevent the infections she had repeatedly suffered from before - took six-and-a-half hours.

Hext was meant to be in for one night, but she became unwell and was instead placed in intensive care. She spent almost three weeks in hospital.

Eventually Hext's surgeon came in to turn on the implant and with it changed her life.

"It was the most emotional moment where I just didn't know what to do. Do I cry, do I smile? It's actually worked. It means the absolute world to me. My surgeon's been phenomenal but yes, it hasn't been an easy ride," Hext said.

"When I say 'life changing' I truly mean it. This has changed my life beyond belief. I put it on in the morning and I smile to myself because there's suddenly sound around me."

Pushing her health

In 2012, aged 23, promising young horse rider Hext was left paralysed from the waist down after a "freak accident" while riding. She broke her pelvis, spinal cord, shoulder and suffered a head injury. "I'm very lucky to be here today", she said.

Inspired by the London 2012 Games, she eventually got back in the saddle and went on to win three Para-dressage gold medals at the 2017 European Championships.

That same year, Hext discovered another love in the pool and also turned to swimming. Two years later she won two medals at the Para World Swimming Championships.

Then last summer, the Truro-born swimmer made her Paralympic debut in Tokyo.

Suzanna Hext returns to the pool after her operation
A device fitted to the implant allows Hext to hear her coach when she is in the pool

However, reaching Tokyo was far from straightforward. A serious infection left her in hospital only months before, and once there, Hext suffered from another infection and repeated asthma attacks that again took her to hospital.

She finished fourth in two finals but withdrew from competition early and flew home for more treatment.

"Naively at the time, yes I knew I was ill, but I didn't know I was that ill," Hext said.

"People were telling me but I didn't necessarily understand quite how awful I looked for starters, but also, I did push it with my health really, realistically."

'Like hearing underwater'

Hext described the two months since the surgery as the "hardest weeks of my life" as she has adjusted to being able to hear again and returned to the swimming pool in Swindon where she trains.

"When it got switched on, to be honest it was more than I ever could have expected because he (the surgeon) had dampened my expectations down," Hext said.

"It sounds like someone is slightly robotic, slightly tinny and underwater. It's getting better as the months go on, it's less tinny.

"I haven't heard mum's voice for a long, long time and whilst I could recognise it was my mum's voice, which was amazing, it didn't necessarily sound completely the same."

Suzanna Hext in the gym
Hext has returned to the gym - one of her "happy places" - since her operation

The implant has also had a massive impact on her training regime, as she can now wear a device - a mini mic - that enables her to hear her coach Dean Fouracre when she is in the pool.

"It's amazing, I can have my implant on in the water," she said. "Dean's been blown away by it as well."

For now, Hext's main focus is getting her health back on track after a testing period. The Para Swimming World Championships in Madeira in June is in her sights, as well as getting back to the stables near Cirencester where she rides.

Further down the line, the Paris Paralympic Games in 2024 is an obvious target with Hext "more hungry than ever" for a medal.

"I'm really excited for what I have to come," she added. "I've been through a lot the last year. My health has been pretty awful.

"Not had a smooth ride into the Games at all and I feel like I'm now turning a corner and I'm able to keep pushing forward and get stuck into my training and really enjoy it.

"I'm back in the water, I'm back in all my happy places. I'm back riding, I'm back in the gym, feeling good and positive."

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