Wednesday, 19 November 2008

VE3MPG, Cyborg and Bionic Ham

Cyborg is a fictional character, a superhero appearing in comic books published by DC Comics. Ooops wrong definition; here we go again - Cyborg: A cyborg is a cybernetic organism (i.e., an organism that has both artificial and natural systems). The term was coined in 1960 when Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline used it in an article about the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space. That's close enough, though I haven't been to outer space yet but it could happen. And, I'm not a superhero or even a superham.

In the fall of 2006 I received a cochlear implant, my bionic implant.

In the mid 1980s I was losing my hearing at a rapid pace due to a genetic fault. Many in my family were hard of hearing and the older family members, my father and my grandmother were left with little hearing. By 1990 I was wearing two intra canal digital aids but speech and going to the movies and TV were extremely difficult to hear. By 1993 I was profoundly deaf and could barely use a phone and had a closed captioning device on my TV set. I was wearing very powerful behind the ear aids at that time and by the year 2000 I was really struggling. I had my first appointment at the Audiology Unit at Ottawa's Civic Hospital but didn't qualify for an implant at that time. Apparently I wasn't deaf enough yet. Criteria has since changed making it much easier to qualify for a cochlear implant.

Deaf or hard of hearing persons learn to cope with their disability and I learned to lip read very well. Of course lip reading only worked if the other person was facing me. I carried on pretty well in this way for a few years. In 2005 while at home my burglar alarm tripped and two squad cars showed up - I live out in the country but it didn't take long for the police to respond. I signed to them that I was deaf and they wondered if I could hear the alarm and I shook my head 'no'. Well that was the turning point for me - I could no longer use a telephone but did rely on the very early Blackberries for text and email messaging - another way of coping.

So I got with the program again at the Civic hospital after an audiologist at the Canadian Hearing Society recommended it since hearing aids couldn't do anything more for me.

Curtail my ham activities it did. In 1993 I got so discouraged I sold my HF gear, a beautiful Kenwood TS-520SE as I couldn't hear SSB anymore. CW was fine even up to my last few days before the implant. With the little residual hearing I had left I was still able to hear that CW tone. I hadn't done 2 meters from the car for years but still had a radio installed just in case. I remember the day I just couldn't struggle anymore not hearing the guys on the repeater. I really missed that.

Pictured above is the implant receiver, the Advanced Bionics HiRes 90k the most advanced DSP based processor available. The gold plated titanium part is the enclosure for the electronics. The clear part with gold wires running along the perimeter is the implant antenna with a small magnet in the center. The long sensor array tip is wound inside the cochlea of the inner ear. There are 16 sensors on the tip and most of them end up touching ever so slightly some of the nerves inside the damaged cochlea. A small channel is routed out from the surface of the skull just above and behind the ear to seat the processor and antenna. A hole is then drilled through the mastoid bone behind the ear to carefully insert and position the sensor array in the cochlea. Some extremely small metal guide tools are used by the surgeon to carefully insert the array without doing any damage to the fragile cochlea.

This photo shows a channel routed from the skull - where the receiver will reside. You can see the sutures that will hold the receiver in place and the electrode lead channel. The skin and scalp are then replaced and sutured back. I arrived at the Civic Hospital in the morning and was prepped for surgery. After 5.5 hours in the OR I was wheeled into recovery, then ICU and was released at 6a.m. the next morning. Five weeks later my implant was activated.

Did deafness affect my ham radio hobby? Yes it did. Did I give up? No!

Helen Keller said that if she had to choose between being deaf and being blind, she'd be blind, because while blindness cut her off from things, deafness cut her off from people.

My hearing today is based on the skills of the engineers, programmers and researchers at Advanced Bionics in California. Sound is coded in bits and bytes and transformed into something recognizable to my brain. My implant has 16 electrodes, but the virtual-channels software will make my hardware act like there are actually 121. Manipulating the flow of electricity to target neurons between each electrode creates the illusion of seven new electrodes between each actual pair, similar to the way an audio engineer can make a sound appear to emanate from between two speakers. It takes at least 100 channels to create good music perception.

The photo above is me, five weeks after surgery and the day of my 'activation'. This is the external processor with a small T-mic in the ear where the sound is picked up. The gray headpiece is held on with a small magnet where the internal receiver, antenna and magnet are located. A battery located on the external processor powers the internal electronics through the skin. A diagnostic light on the external processor stops blinking when a data link is established with the internal processor. I'm being programmed via that cable to an XP computer running Advanced Bionics' mapping software. Three new strategies can be programmed to the external processor - I have one for loud environments, very quiet environments and one for regular sound environments. The T-mic detaches and I can plug my Ipod directly to my implant for listening to music (mono only!) or podcasts which I download to the Ipod Touch.

I am slowly making more voice contacts on SSB and FM but still have a lot of difficulty with bad audio on the phone bands. Some operators have excellent audio while many have overprocessed and overdriven audio. I find this especially on the local HF nets where good net etiquette is not followed. The net controls either speak too fast or you get the 'yellers' with their mic gain turned up too high. It will just take time and the patience of the hams at the other end of the mic. Today most of my HF activity centers on the digital modes and I enjoy that immensly.

If any of you have questions about this article please post them in the comments section or email me directly via the listing for my call.

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