Windang schoolboy and bionic ear recipient Felix Williams meets its inventor

Inspirational: Felix Williams was born profoundly deaf - and on Monday met the inventor of the bionic ear he had implanted - Professor Graeme Clark. Picture: Robert Peet
Inspirational: Felix Williams was born profoundly deaf - and on Monday met the inventor of the bionic ear he had implanted - Professor Graeme Clark. Picture: Robert Peet

Windang schoolboy Felix Williams wants to be a rock star when he grows up - but he never would have been able to develop a passion for music had he not received cochlear implants at just five months old.

On Monday he met the man who gave him the gift of hearing - bionic ear inventor Professor Graeme Clark. But it may have been the latter who was more starstruck.

‘’It’s awesome – a real joy,’’ the esteemed scientist said. ‘’To be truthful I couldn’t believe the benefits when I started (developing the implant). I got so much criticism, I almost lost any sense of pride, I was treated like a clown.

‘’Then, when after much persistence and effort, it became a reality – to see the joy on the faces of the children in particular, it was worth all the blood, sweat and tears.’’

Felix, 8, was born profoundly deaf, with parents Jo and David immediately investigating the multi-channel cochlear implant. Monday wasn’t actually the family’s first meeting with its inventor – they took Felix as a tiny baby to an event Professor Clark was attending.

‘’A few weeks out from Felix’s surgery we heard Graeme Clark was attending an awards night at the University of Wollongong and so we went along,’’ Mrs Williams said. ‘’He was absolutely delightful and helped put our minds at ease about going ahead with the surgery.’’

The surgery was a success and after early intervention at The Shepherd Centre in Wollongong, Felix progressed to mainstream school.

‘’He loves school and while he tires easily he doesn’t let it hold him back academically,’’ Mrs Williams said. ‘’He’s also passionate about music – which we never thought he’d be able to appreciate – he’s been learning the guitar and wants to be a rock star.’’

The early meeting with Prof Clark also instilled in the former IT worker a love of science and she continued to attend public lectures at the university. Once Felix was at school, Mrs Williams was no longer content to sit back and let others do the research, and embarked upon a Masters of Biofabrication.

Last night she was rewarded for her efforts after receiving the annual Bill Wheeler Award, given to a student engaged in bionics research with public benefit.

‘’When you get a cochlear implant there’s a high risk that any background hearing you might have will be destroyed due to the inflammatory response to the foreign body. My research is looking at how we can put an anti-inflammatory inside the implant – through 3D printing – to reduce that risk.’’

Jo Williams is undertaking research at the ARC Centre for Electromaterials Science to help those like her son achieve better health outcomes. Picture: Robert Peet

Jo Williams is undertaking research at the ARC Centre for Electromaterials Science to help those like her son achieve better health outcomes. Picture: Robert Peet

For Prof Clark, seeing Mrs Williams come full circle, from audience member to award recipient, is satisfying.

‘’It’s exciting to see that people share that excitement about the implant and who take it to the next level,’’ he said. ‘’It’s a new era of medicine and engineering – not only to improve and work on the next generation of bionic ears, but bionic eyes, bionic spinal cords … brains and organs in dishes to test out new drugs. Different disciplines are working together for the best progress for mankind.’’

Prof Clark continues to collaborate with ARC Centre for Electromaterials Science director Professor Gordon Wallace – where Mrs Williams, and many others, conduct their specialised research.

‘’The University of Melbourne has kindly created the Graeme Clark Institute for Biomedical Engineering which is a very nice fit for some of the research happening at UOW,’’ he said.

Illawarra Mercury