WHEN a little kid told their parents to "shut up" on Tuesday, it was music to their ears.
It might seem an unusual reaction, but the child had just come out of a life-changing surgery at Lingard Private Hospital in Newcastle which let them hear the world at full volume.
About 20 Indigenous children underwent a simple but essential procedure to remove liquid from their inner ear during a massive morning of operations.
Ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon Professor Kelvin Kong said it was mind-blowing to watch them wake up.
"Even to hear in recovery that notion of 'be quiet' or 'shut up' is fantastic because you know you made a difference there," he told the Newcastle Herald.
"That just made me laugh because there's suddenly this explosion of noise and they're engaging in this thing called life again."
He compared it to having a concert hall filled with foam, and when it's all removed, you hear the loud and impressive echo.
A surprise private donation of more than $1 million allowed the extension of NSW Health's HEALS program, which provides ENT, speech and language services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, in 2021.
It made the operations in Newcastle on Tuesday possible.
And for those children, who were aged up to 10 years old, it took them off the years-long public waitlist for ear intervention and instead saw just a three-month turnaround from diagnosis to treatment.
Professor Kong said the kids were suddenly hearing and smiling, and their families were elated.
"You can't understand the emotion," he said.
"You would do absolutely anything for your child or your family, and so when you can get their hearing back and their speech and they're talking and doing those things, it's so, so exciting."
Professor Kong said his passion was ensuring that every Australian child had access to ear health.
"Hearing is the foundation of everything for the rest of your life," he said.
"Hearing is the foundation of learning, speech, your job, your employment prospects."
Professor Kong is an Aboriginal man and said being able to hear and communicate was culturally significant.
"It's also the starting point of your songlines, your singing, your culture," he said.
Aboriginal children have the highest rates of middle ear disease in the world.
It's something all kids get, must most can get through it without intervention.
"But what we're seeing in our vulnerable populations, particularly in our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations, is that the ear disease is starting at an earlier age, it's more persistent, and it's more prevalent," he said.
Professor Kong worked alongside a team of surgeons, anaesthetists, audiologists, Indigenous health practitioners and Aboriginal medical students on Tuesday.
Backed by research, he's championing a revolutionary system of engagement among all those professionals to find, diagnose and treat vulnerable children to slash wait times and make sure parents and carers can start the process to get ear help quickly.
He wants to show how it could be done in the public system too.
"If we get the structures right for the most vulnerable and biased against, then it works for everyone," he said.
Professor Kong thanked Lingard for "bending over backwards" to host the surgeries, and everyone involved. He said John Hunter Hospital had been supportive of the mammoth effort to make the day happen.