“The jewel in the crown”: pioneering Irish ENT surgeon Professor Laura Viani receives international Cpl World-Class Talent Award

Cpl World-Class Talent Series recognises RCSI fellow for her life-changing work

  • Professor Viani carried out Ireland’s first cochlear implant surgery in 1995
  • Her team at the National Hearing Implant and Research Centre has grown from 2 to 30 and carries out 200 cochlear implant surgeries a year
  • Prof Viani, who has helped to raise hundreds of thousands of euros for cochlear implants in Ireland, credits strong team
  • “I felt there was an obligation to pursue cochlear implant surgery in Ireland,” she said.

Professor Laura Viani, a neurotological surgeon whose National Hearing Implant and Research Centre (NHIRC) was once called “the jewel in the crown” of Beaumont Hospital by a Minister for Health, has been awarded the Cpl World-Class Talent Award for her pioneering work in the field of cochlear implants.

Prof Viani, a fellow of RCSI and a member of the RCSI Council, opened Ireland’s first cochlear implant clinic in Dublin in 1994 and completed the country’s first cochlear implant surgery in March 1995. She remained Ireland’s only cochlear implant surgeon until 2009.

Over the last 25 years, Prof Viani built up a small RCSI-based clinic of two into a team of 30 medical specialists and clinical support experts spread across multiple Irish hospitals, whose knowledge and skills put Ireland’s cochlear implant programme on par with the UK and other major international countries.

Prof Viani’s award is part of the Cpl World-Class Talent Series, which recognises outstanding global leaders who have made meaningful contributions to our economy and society.

What is a cochlear implant and how does it impact patients?

The cochlea is the snail-shaped part of the inner ear that ‘hears’ sound waves and transmits them as electrical signals to the brain. In people born deaf, or those who have lost their hearing later in life, the cochlea either functions very poorly or does not function at all.

A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted device that provides the patient with a sense of sound by directly stimulating the auditory nerve to the brain.

Before cochlear implant surgery was made available in Ireland by Prof Viani and her team, over 90% of children born with profound hearing loss did not learn to use oral speech and most of them did not have the opportunity to attend mainstream school.  Young professionals with profound hearing loss struggled with employment, and older people with profound hearing loss were left in isolation.

Cochlear implant surgery, however, has allowed many of these people to fully integrate into society, participate in school with hearing children, excel at work, and maintain independence well into old age.

Prof Viani’s success and inspiration

Over the last 25 years, Prof Viani and her team have raised hundreds of thousands of euros for cochlear implant surgery in Ireland and have lobbied the Government for improved public access to the treatment. Today, Prof Viani and her team carry out 200 cochlear implants a year at Beaumont Hospital.

Looking back on her career so far, Prof Viani said she felt there was an “obligation” to pursue cochlear implant surgery in Ireland. She credits a robust, professional team and leadership skills for much of the success of the NHIRC.

“Teamwork is everything,” said Prof Viani. “You’ve got to have empathy, and you need to want other people to succeed. Keep an open door and have respect for other people. As a leader, you need to have a goal and a plan for how to get there.”

Today, her inspiration remains the patients themselves: “It really is inspiring to see the kids doing so well, particularly when you hear that they’re speaking so well and have acquired local accents. You see them forever; a cochlear implant is part of a lifelong journey. Just recently, a patient I treated as a child, who received a cochlear implant, wrote to me to say that they had achieved a first-class degree in medicine at UCC.”

What’s next?

The future is bright for Prof Viani and the NHIRC. Starting in 2020, the NHIRC, collaborating with Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, will participate in a global study on cochlear implants in older people. The NHIRC is also actively working to develop its clinical research team.

Speaking personally, Prof Viani said: “I’d like to take on a role as a global ambassador for hearing loss, especially in countries where they are having difficulties setting up their own cochlear implant programmes.”

“Perhaps when I retire,” she continued, “I’d like to take on the role of national ambassador for disability.”

Prof Viani received the Cpl World-Class Talent Award at an event in The Cliff Townhouse on 19 September.

Anne Heraty, CEO of Cpl, said: “The World-Class Talent Award recognises the most valuable contributions from global leaders to society. Professor Viani embodies the spirit of the award, and she has made a profound difference to thousands of lives.

“It is with great pleasure and pride that we present the inaugural Cpl World-Class Talent Award to Professor Laura Viani.”

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