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January 28, 2003

Implant opens world of hearing for deaf woman

From: Salem Statesman Journal, OR - 28 Jan 2003

Kylee Blake soon will have her second cochlear device activated.

Statesman Journal
January 28, 2003

KEIZER – After more than two years of hearing birds chirp, singers croon, toilets flush and cars honk, Kylee Blake still can't get enough of the sounds.

Since she received a cochlear implant in one ear to improve her hearing, she's been hankering for a second for her other ear.

She finally got her wish earlier this month, when Dr. John Niparko, director of ear surgery at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore, inserted a cochlear implant behind her right ear.

Blake will return next month to have her second implant activated.

"I'm excited. At least now I know what to expect," she said.

The trip will mark a major milestone in the 26-year-old Blake's life.

Although she always has been hard of hearing, Blake functioned well in the hearing world with the help of hearing aids and lip reading.

She was the first deaf student to attend Salem-Keizer schools full-time.

But at 19, she went completely deaf.

She had the first cochlear implant operation in 2000. Almost immediately, Blake heard soda cans fizz, ice cracking in a glass and a smorgasbord of sounds that eluded her for the four years since her world became silent.

Gone was her apprehension about walking at night because she could hear joggers, bikes and cars.

She no longer had to scan a room to find the source of a sound or vibration.

"It was a monumental thing for me," said Blake, her colorful two-piece bionic ear processor worn over her left ear and head like a fashion accessory.

The day after the first surgery, Blake's world went from near silence to near stereo.

But it wasn't true stereo; it was more like having headphones on but only being able to hear on one side.

Niparko, who has done three such operations, calls it the cocktail party effect.

"The problem is sorting out the sound, not hearing more," he said.

With the second surgery, Blake's sound field should expand and she should be able to sort out speech in a noisy environment, Niparko said.

Once activated, Blake will join about 200 people in the U.S. and another 500 overseas who have had two implants.

Since her first operation, the number of implants have increased from 20,000 to 30,000 nationally. There are more than 60,000 implants worldwide; half of recipients are children.

Last year, Niparko even operated on Heather Whitestone, the former Miss America whose reign raised awareness of the deaf and hard of hearing.

Both Blake's cochlear implants are covered by insurance, allowing her to focus on living with the battery-operated implants.

Since her 2000 operation, she has switched from using a speech processor worn like a Walkman at her waist to one over her ear.

While that's eliminated the problem of where to put the unit during trips to the bathroom, Blake has other practical concerns.

To protect the headpiece and speech process components of her implant from the wet Oregon winters, she wears her hair down or dons a stocking cap.

She also must remember to remove her ear gear before taking a shower.

Although she has a card explaining the implant, Blake still finds herself showing the equipment to curious airport screeners in order to get pass the metal detectors.

And she's not immune from ribbing from family and friends.

Her brother noticed right away Kylee's new "girlie" voice, her mother said, because once she was able to hear herself talk, her pitch went from low to high.

Having one cochlear implant also poses a new set of challenges.

Where she once had to remind people that talking louder in her hearing aid does not mean she'll hear them any better, Blake now reminds them to speak into her left ear, not her right.

She's constantly shifting her position in order to put her implant closer to a speaker, the television or some other audio source.

After being startled by people who approached her on the right side to talk, Blake put up a mirror at her cubicle so she could see behind her. She finally gave up and rearranged her work space so she could see them coming.

Blake won't miss those hassles, but her husband, John Pedersen, sometimes longs for the days when his ears were her ears.

The newlyweds met when she was deaf, Blake said, and he liked that she depended on him.

"It's a guy thing in a nice way," she said, smiling at the thought.

Susan Tom can be reached at (503) 399-6744.

Copyright 2003 Statesman Journal, Salem, Oregon