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December 23, 2002

Ear surgery ends Israeli bomb victim's limbo

From: Reuters AlertNet, UK - 23 Dec 2002

By Dan Williams

TEL HASHOMER, Israel, Dec 23 (Reuters) - When Eyal Neufeld cries, the tears roll back and disappear into the recesses of his wrecked eyes.

It is a painful sight, but a step forward nevertheless. Until recently, the ability to express himself at all was a luxury lost to the 20-year-old Israeli.

Neufeld, an army conscript, was on a bus to his base in northern Israel on August 4 when a Palestinian suicide bomber boarded and blew himself up. Nine passengers died.

The blast and ensuing inferno left Neufeld blind, deaf and comatose, one of thousands of Israelis and Palestinians maimed during more than two years of Middle East violence.

But his wounds were doubly traumatic, as they robbed him of both his senses and the ability to make sense of his disability.

"When I came to, I had no memory of the bombing, and no one could tell me," Neufeld said at Sheba hospital in the Tel Aviv suburb of Tel Hashomer days after innovative surgery in November partially restored his hearing.

"I would call out for food and get it, but when I asked for someone to talk to me -- nothing. I kept blinking as if to clear my sight. My life was silence and blackness," he told Reuters.

At first, doctors had little hope for Neufeld.

His limbs were burned and lacerated, and a piece of human bone -- possibly the bomber's -- had lodged in his hip. Worse were the head wounds. The explosion had slammed him about in his seat, crushing his skull, eyeballs and inner ear.

"Eyal was not much more than a piece of ravaged meat," recalled Sheba director Zeev Rotstein. "He was completely unresponsive, and we saw his chances of returning to a semblance of a sentient normal life were slim at best."


But Neufeld, a former combat trooper, was determined to survive and recover the power to communicate. It was an involuntary impulse, he said, coming into play even as he lay in a coma during the first two months after the attack.

"I remember, like a dream, running my hands over my body and learning the extent of the damage -- the scars, the bumps, the burn marks," he said.

Harder to handle was the prodding of unseen hands, and the often painful treatment which they delivered. According to Rotstein, Neufeld would sometimes lash out at medical staffers.

"There was no way for me to know who these people were and that they were hurting me for my own good," Neufeld said.

Once conscious, however, he set about identifying those around him, relying on his other senses -- the taste of a loved one's kiss, the smell of another hospital-issue gown, the familiar feel of hair on a relative's forearm.

And this developed into a sign language of sorts.

"One time, I grabbed my dad's arm and told him that I would ask yes-no questions and that he should wag his hand to answer, sideways for 'no' and up and down for 'yes'," Neufeld said.

A nurse from Sheba's paediatric wing contributed to the next stage of Neufeld's recovery, bringing in an alphabet set of children's letters made out of outsized plastic and magnetised so they could be used to form words on a special board.

"After I learned to recognise the letters by touch, people could compose short messages to me," Neufeld said.

"It was slow going, but it worked," he added. "I had to choose between living and dying, and I chose life. That is my revenge against the terrorist on that bus."

$20,000 "MIRACLE"

Impressed by Neufeld's progress, doctors decided on a move previously unheard of -- installing a cochlear implant to simulate the functions of his defunct inner ear.

"The surgery was intended for children born with serious hearing defects, as it artificially 'translates' sound into nerve signals which the brain can understand," Rotstein said.

"But Neufeld was an adult who had already experienced normal hearing, and we had no way of predicting how he would receive the artificial version," he added.

The experiment with the $20,000 device was a success.

Neufeld can hear words spoken into his right ear from distances of up to a foot (0.3 metre), and conduct normal conversations. Once he has similar surgery on his left ear, this will give him the added advantage of spatial perception.

"Bilateral hearing is vital for the blind, as it allows them to 'see' by determining distances from people and other sources of noise in the area," Rotstein said.

But there are limits to the technology, which is designed to process frequencies within the bandwidth of normal human speech, and does not pick up complex sounds like layered music.

For now, Neufeld is not complaining.

"The doctors here are miracle-workers," he said. "After being out of touch for so long, I appreciate everything anew. I can communicate, I can feel, I can cry."

Neufeld said he hoped to raise a family one day, and that by then medical advances will have restored his sight.

"There are experiments under way to convert light waves in the same way the cochlear implant converts sound," Rotstein said. "It is a long way off, but we have learned that nothing is impossible."

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