When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the UK, thousands of surgical procedures were put on hold. For a surgeon like me who performs operations on deaf children to restore their hearing, this created a significant moral dilemma – I wanted to get back into surgery to provide this vital care, but I didn’t want to inadvertently catch or pass on COVID-19 in the process.
I regularly carry out cochlear implant surgery, a process in which a surgeon embeds an electronic device which stimulates the hearing nerve in the ear. The scientific evidence is clear that this surgery needs to be performed at the earliest opportunity so that these children can benefit from being able to hear at a vital stage in their development.
But performing the surgery as normal would have put both children and surgical teams in danger. We needed to come up with another way of doing things. Our team in Nottingham had to combine creativity and science to develop a novel and safe way to restart cochlear implant surgery in a matter of just a few weeks.
This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.
A grave risk
Soon after the pandemic began, some of the earliest reports, notably those from China and Italy, suggested that healthcare workers were at significantly higher risk of contracting COVID-19 compared to the general public, and that treating ear, nose and throat (ENT) conditions was particularly risky.
I was deeply saddened when I was told that the one of the first healthcare workers in the UK to die of COVID-19 was Amged El-Hawrani, a 55-year-old ENT colleague from the university hospitals of Derby and Burton. El-Hawrani succumbed to this dreadful disease on March 28 in Leicester’s Glenfield hospital. Although I never had the pleasure of meeting him, his passing was a huge shock to us all. And his exposure to the virus during his care for his patients was a stark reminder of the brutality of this disease.
Like other ENT departments across the world, our service at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust initially halted all elective procedures in March when the pandemic hit the UK, so we could concentrate our team’s efforts on the management of our sickest patients, including those conditions requiring emergency admission, and our cancer services.
Although this initial response proved effective, we were aware that we were not meeting the needs of other patients with time-critical, albeit not life-threatening, conditions. These patients included children who are born deaf and need cochlear implant surgery to restore their hearing as quickly as possible to maximise their chances of developing normal speech and language. Delaying cochlear implant surgery can