Now hear this, at 100 Norm’s a bionic pioneer

More than one reason to celebrate: Norman Heldon at his 100th birthday celebration at Loftus Community Hall on August 5. Photo: Picture: Kat Stanley Photography
More than one reason to celebrate: Norman Heldon at his 100th birthday celebration at Loftus Community Hall on August 5. Photo: Picture: Kat Stanley Photography

When Mortdale resident Norman Heldon turned 100 on August 1 there was more than one reason to celebrate.

War service: Norman Heldon first noticed he was going deaf in 1944 when he was serving as a wireless operator on the Lancaster Bombers.

War service: Norman Heldon first noticed he was going deaf in 1944 when he was serving as a wireless operator on the Lancaster Bombers.

As well as celebrating his centenary, Mr Heldon, who is profoundly deaf, marked his tenth anniversary of enjoying the gift of hearing from the bionic ear he received at 90 years of age.

His milestone coincides with Hearing Awareness Week, August 20 to 26, which is designed to raise awareness of hearing loss and highlight the needs of Australians who are deaf or hearing impaired.

While some people may think that cochlear implants are for babies and young people, Mr Heldon has shown that even 90 is not too old to have a cochlear implant.

The Sydney Cochlear Implant Centre in Gladesville, whose audiologists visit Mr Heldon for a check-up of his cochlear implant every year, believe that he is most likely the oldest person in NSW, or even Australia, with a cochlear implant.

Mr Heldon was born in Hurstville in 1917 and has lived in southern Sydney for most of his life.

During World War II he spent two years with the army and then two years with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in England.

Mr Heldon first noticed he was going deaf in 1944 when he was serving as a wireless operator on the Lancaster Bombers and seated on the plane was next to one of the engine bays.

“During my first flight operation, I was admiring all the pretty flashes against the night sky when the pilot told me that they were exploding shells,” he said

“One night after a military operation I was lying on the bunks in a blacked-out room with some other airmen who were telling jokes and laughing. After a while I realised that I could hear voices but not what they were saying. I think that it was the noise from those engines that started my deafness and the RAAF agreed. After having risen to the rank of Flight Lieutenant, I was demobbed in 1945.”

After the war, Mr Heldon returned to carpet laying and married his sweetheart Ruth in 1947. They built a house in Beverly Hills and had three children, Owen, Murray and Sylvia.

“As my hearing gradually became worse, I started to withdraw from conversations,” Mr Heldon said.

“Apart from the difficulties you feel, you don’t want to embarrass the other person by not hearing what they have to say.

“My deafness was a real problem for my wife. There were so many things she missed out on that she would have enjoyed, such as social occasions we would have gone to together if I had not been deaf. I didn’t want to go and she wouldn’t go without me.’

Mr Heldon was left a widower in 1995 when he was 78. He stayed on in Beverly Hills for a few years and then moved to a villa near Loftus railway station.

He first learned about cochlear implants from a hearing centre in Hurstville. They noticed his hearing deteriorating and arranged the appointment with Professor Bill Gibson in 2007 when Mr Heldon was about 90 years old.

“Prof Gibson thought that my physical fitness and mental state would allow me to enjoy my cochlear implant for many years to come; although he said that I must be willing to socialise and use the implant. I am very grateful that Professor Gibson thought I was a suitable candidate as it brings me back into the community.

“My cochlear implant in September 2008 worked well right from the start, although it is still not as good as natural hearing. Men’s voices are clearer than women’s; but it depends on the person. I had the implant in my right ear and I still wear a hearing aid in my left ear. I can understand the television newsreaders on the ABC including Juanita Phillips.”

Six months after Mr Heldon was switched-on, he recited the poetry of Browning and Hopkins as well as some of his own poems from his a self-published book called Literary Smorgasbord: a collection of short stories and poems. He has recited his own poems at the weddings of his grand-daughters.

Mr Heldon now lives at Ferndale Gardens Aged Care Facility in Mortdale.

His 100th birthday celebration took place at the Loftus Community Hall and was attended by more than 100 people including his large family which includes three children, 12 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

The family read out the cards from dignitaries including Queen Elizabeth II, The Governor General and the Prime Minister.

To mark his birthday, Mr Heldon choose two poems to recite on the day.

He was also celebrating ten years of being brought back into the community and his family through his ability to communicate.

Mr Heldon’s story is included in the biography of his surgeon, Bill Gibson: pioneering bionic ear surgeon by Tina K Allen, published in March 2017 by NewSouth Books ($34.99)

The book includes the stories of more than 40 people who Professor Gibson has operated on to provide a cochlear implant.