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January 23, 2003

Implant restores Morrill's hearing

From: Burlington Union, MA - 23 Jan 2003

By David W. Smith / Staff Writer
Thursday, January 23, 2003

10-year-old's six-month wait is over at last

After a six-month wait, things are finally coming in loud and clear for 10-year-old Richard Morrill.

In a quietly dramatic moment at Lahey Clinic in Burlington Friday, Otolaryngologist Peter Catalano held Morrill's head in his hand, and gently snapped a flesh-colored device about the size of a toothbrush head into a port behind the Haverhill youth's right ear. This attachment, called a cochlear implant or bone-anchored hearing device, will allow Morrill to finally make sense of the confusion of noises and sounds that began two years ago.

"It's works wicked good," said Morrill, wearing a Scooby Doo T-shirt and sitting quietly in a hospital office chair. "I can hear small, small voices. I could probably hear the squeak of a mouse."

While he was not deaf, Morrill said he was unable to understand anything properly, from teachers to television, unless he was in a silent room with a single source of noise. He was able to attend classes at the Golden Hill School with the aid of a speaker system, but he never could hear things properly, Morrill told a group of reporters surrounding him on Friday morning. While he never grew bitter about the hearing loss, life could be frustrating, he said.

"I couldn't really hear anything or do anything," said Morrill. "I failed some tests. Not a lot."

The main concern two years ago, when Morrill first underwent surgery for a benign tumor called a cholesteatoma in his right ear, was to get the infection to clear up, according to his mother Terri Mandigo. Morrill went through surgery twice, leaving his right ear deaf as it required removal of the eardrums and bones that transmit sound to nerves in the inner ear. Her son already suffered from weak hearing in his left ear, so functioning at home or in the classroom became pretty difficult, Mandigo said.

Installation of the hearing device, which was donated by the hospital and Entific, the manufacturer, has left her feeling nervous and excited.

"We went from normal voice to loud voices and loud TVs," said Mandigo. "We'll have to learn to turn it down."

The implant, which has a volume knob Morrill can adjust, will go a long way toward helping him keep up with school work and social development, as well as helping him stay safe according to Catalano, a neck, ear, nose and head physician. This is a revolutionary device because it doesn't simply amplify sound like a hearing aid. Instead, a titanium screw is inserted into the bone behind the recipient's ear. Following a six-month waiting period while the screw makes a bond with the bone, the device will allow him to bypass the components of the ear that normally transfer sound. The results will be crystal clear, unlike a hearing aid, the doctor said.

"It will be as if he has direct connection from the sound to his nerves," said Catalano.

Because his patient was not deaf, with perfect nerve functioning, the implant is considered a hearing assistance device and is not covered by insurance, Catalano said. Instead, his office wrote several letters to the manufacturer, who eventually agreed to provide the device free-of-charge. Mandigo said they wouldn't have been able to afford the procedure, which costs about $8,500, including surgery, without the hospital's help.

Morrill, who gamely answered the questions of reporters on Friday, is not out of the woods yet, and still needs surgery in his left ear to address infections similar to those in his right. With the device in place, the time to do that has come, according to Catalano.

"Before we could repair the left ear, we wanted to make sure he could hear normally in his right," he said.

Even if Morrill temporarily loses hearing in the left ear, things should be much better for him with the implant.

"This is great," said Catalano. "Being able to restore his hearing is very exciting. There's nothing better."

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