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November 28, 2002

Gift of sound a reason to be thankful

From: Henderson Gleaner, KY
Nov. 28, 2002

By Judy Jenkins - Gleaner News Columnist
November 28, 2002

Thanksgiving came 13 days early for Hannah Hall and her family.

There was no roasted turkey or pumpkin pie, but the day was filled with thanks because it marked a life-changing event for 14-year-old Hannah.

On that Friday, Nov. 15, the cochlear implant the South Middle School eighth-grader had received in a three-hour surgery on Oct. 3 was activated for the first time at Louisville's Kosair Children's Hospital.

Hannah's mom, Kelly, videotaped that event in which a series of beeps were transmitted to Hannah and the curly-haired girl was asked to raise her hand each time she heard a beep. "Her eyes got real big, and her hand kept flying up," Kelly relates. "As soon as they turned it on, she could hear!"

Though she's currently utilizing only two of the implant's four programs and is still adjusting to a noisy world, it's obvious Hannah is enjoying herself. Her portable CD and tape player is getting plenty of use, and when the phone rings she makes a dash for it, yelling, "I'll get it!"

Previously, Hannah couldn't hear a ringing phone that was right next to her.

Kelly said in the short time since the cochlear activation, "I can see a whole lot of improvement."

Hearing clarity is a strange and wonderful novelty for the youth who has only one percent hearing in her left ear. Her right ear has also been seriously impaired, with fluctuating hearing levels. Last spring, Hannah began slurring her words and it was evident that the hearing in her right ear had rapidly diminished.

As reported in a previous column, Hannah has had a number of medical problems to deal with from birth onward. Because she's been through so much, her mother was doubly determined that if there were any way possible to help Hannah hear, she was going to find it. She began doing extensive research, consulting doctors and asking questions. That led her to the cochlear implant, a "bionic ear" procedure that's been around since the early 1980s but still is largely unfamiliar to the general public.

Not everyone with hearing loss is a candidate for the device, but fortunately Hannah was.

With the implant, speech and environmental sounds are picked up at an ear-level microphone and sent into a speech processor that filters, analyzes and digitizes the sound into coded signals. These signals are sent from the speech processor to a transmitting coil that delivers the sounds to the cochlear implant.

The implant transforms sound into electrical signals channeled to the auditory nerve, which sends it to the brain for interpretation.

Hannah learned all about the device's function via books and videos that Kosair has provided her and her family, which includes her dad Mike and older brother Zeb.

When asked about the surgery at Kosair, Hannah said, "I didn't feel a thing!" That wasn't the case, however, after she came out from under the anesthesia. Kelly said that while Hannah generally tolerates pain without complaint, "she cried a little." But she did so well overall that her hospital stay was only overnight.

She's returning to Kosair every two weeks for checkups, and will continue to make regular visits for the next three months as the device is fine-tuned for her specific needs.

Meanwhile, her great-grandmother, Christine VanStone, looks on in wonder at the amazing progress Hannah is making. Christine said her late husband Kenneth was deaf following his service in World War II because of his exposure to the booms "of the big guns." He tried hearing aids, but they didn't work for him.

She's thrilled that things are turning out differently for Hannah, whose deafness was caused by several factors. At birth, she had an abnormal amount of cerebrospinal fluid in her cranial cavity and required a surgically-implanted shunt to provide drainage. No one realized it at the time, but she also had sensory neural loss that impacted her hearing.

Three years later, she contracted a virus that rocketed her temperature to 108 degrees, and that apparently contributed to further hearing loss.

In recent years, Hannah primarily has been relying on lip-reading to understand what others are saying. But now communication is much easier.

As Kelly said to her daughter Tuesday, "It all paid off, didn't it?"

Hannah, who heard every word, grinned and said, "Yeah."

© 2001 The E.W. Scripps Co.