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January 9, 2003

'I'm beginning to hear your voice!'

From: Lowell Sun, MA - 09 Jan 2003

Implant restores some hearing to Acton woman's right ear
Sun Staff

Implant restores some hearing to Acton woman's right ear


WORCESTER The people who crammed inside the examining room got a surprise yesterday when Joan Davis blurted out, "I'm beginning to hear your voice!"

The woman whose words Davis heard couldn't contain her glee.

"It happened within 10 minutes!" marveled Sarah Poissant, a doctorate hearing therapist.

Though to Davis the words sounded like wine glasses rung by a spoon, they were the first her right ear processed in nearly four decades.

Last month, Davis, 38, an Acton mother of three, became one of 50,000 Americans receiving a cochlear implant.

The implant, a wiry device threaded into the ear with a mini-microphone attached outside near the ear, is more technologically advanced than a hearing aid, which simply amplifies sounds for a still-functioning ear.

An implant catches sounds in the air, converts them into electrical impulses, and sends them to the nerves in the pea-sized cochlea in the inner ear that lead to the brain. The brain then translates impulses into recognizable sounds.

"It's really doing what the complex nervous systems does," said Dr. Daniel Lee, an audiological surgeon.

Yesterday for the first time since the Dec. 9 operation, Davis spent most of the afternoon testing the device.

Had she simply been able to tell Poissant when she heard the "beep-beep" electric-current pulses being sent into her deadened right ear, the test would have been considered moderately successful.

But the fact that she could hear partial sounds of people talking in the room made everyone the surgeon, therapist, her husband Philip and a reporter crack smiles.

"That was amazing," said Lee, 32, who's performed 120 implants and was recently hired to run UMass Medical Center's 4-year-old program, one of only a handful in the state.

The implant could transform Davis' life, which she described as a "quiet struggle."

As a toddler raised in Belmont, she contracted meningitis, and the virus killed the specialized cells inside the cochlea that convert sound vibrations to electric impulses.

When her parents banged two pans together and the little girl didn't flinch, they suspected problems.

All of her six siblings had normal hearing.

Davis received speech therapy and attended some deaf-school classes, but by the elementary level she attended regular schools.

The hearing in her right ear gone, the hearing in her "good" left ear held steady for years.

In fact a few years ago, UMass Medical Center rejected Davis' request for an implant because the ear still worked relatively well.

"It picked up 73 percent of the words they read to me," she said.

The doctors told her they didn't expect her hearing to diminish.

"But lo and behold, guess what happened," she said with a laugh.

When the left ear began deteriorating, she repeatedly changed the batteries in her hearing aid. She also thought her hearing suffered from the stress of moving homes last year, from Littleton to Acton.

But the ailment was physiological, and the hearing in the good ear dropped below 40 percent, giving her reason to reapproach the Worcester program for an implant.

She was additionally inspired last year when 1995 Miss America Heather Whitestone appeared on Good Morning America to talk about the cochlear implant she received at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, which performs 120 procedures annually.

It was the same institution that trained Davis' doctor, Lee.

"My husband and I watched her and I stopped in my tracks. I thought, 'All right. It's a message from above,'" Davis said.

The 90-minute procedure requires general anesthesia and an overnight stay in the hospital. Davis didn't feel nauseous afterward as some patients do, but she did feel an uncomfortable lump on her ear akin to a tiny hockey puck.

Insurance often doesn't cover the full procedure, which can cost up to $60,000.

"Hospitals often have to eat the costs," said Lee.

Advocates are displeased that a procedure for both ears is often impossible to obtain.

Lee said Davis was a perfect candidate for the procedure, partly because she's able to articulate her sensory symptoms.

"And she's so motivated," said Lee.

"I'm optimistic but guarded," she said in an interview earlier this week in which she spoke by telephone using a hearing aide.

People's expectations can often run high especially children so that doctors prescribe counseling to temper their hopes.

"It's definitely going to be a long process. I keep telling myself it's the light at the end of the tunnel," she said.

Davis can't hide her hopefulness. She recalled simple incidents from the past that helped her decide to try the newfangled implant.

For example, she became frustrated with lip-reading. It prevented her from buttering her children's toast while listening to them chatter.

Another time, her 3-year-old son held his mother's face to grab her attention.

Her husband, who manages mutual funds, once cautioned her not to talk to him while she cut vegetables with a sharp knife.

"He put his hand down and said, 'You're making me nervous,'" she said.

Using a hearing aid, she could hear the classical music she loves but couldn't make out the words.

She worried that someday, as her children got older, they will choose songs whose lyrics she cannot understand or judge for their moral certitude.

Davis is a homemaker, but she had once hoped to become a teacher and toward that end earned a master's degree in early education from Leslie College.

But with her hearing diminishing, she knew teaching would be a struggle in the classroom for her and the schoolchildren.

"I was afraid a child would say something and that I couldn't hear it," she said.

But the good news yesterday, when she heard her therapist speak, gave her hope she might also lasso the career she wanted.

Said Davis, "I'm hoping the implant gives me the confidence."

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