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March 5, 2003

Love Is Loud And, Now, Clear

From: Newsday - 05 Mar 2003

By Margaret Ramirez

March 5, 2003

Dressed in a pink pantsuit and holding a white teddy bear, Patricia Puia sat on her mother's lap, a frightened 2-year-old girl, but she couldn't hear the soft words meant to soothe her.

Since the day Patricia was born, her life in Romania has been without songs or lullabies, a world of silence.

But yesterday, a month after undergoing cochlear implant surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, Patricia heard her very first sounds. When Dorkin Riggins, an audiologist, activated her new hearing implant, a sound traveled to Patricia's left ear, prompting her to turn her head and cry.

"Can you hear me?" her mother, Lucia Puia, asked quietly in Romanian. "Can you hear me?"

It was clear from the child's reaction that she could.

"I feel like I have just given birth to this child for the second time. But this time, she hears," her mother said happily.

For Lucia Puia and her husband, Calin, yesterday brought the miracle they had only dreamed of. In Romania, the couple had taken their daughter to dozens of doctors to find out if there was any possibility she would one day be able to hear.

They finally found a Hungarian physician who said Patricia was a candidate for cochlear implant surgery, a procedure becoming more common these days but no less costly.

The price was a formidable obstacle for this working-class couple, who could not possibly afford to pay the $50,000 to $75,000 cost of the surgery.

They'd nearly lost hope until Cristina Boga, a business consultant from New York, visited Romania last fall and learned of Patricia.

Boga contacted her friend, Dr. Abraham Jaeger, a pediatrician who was raised in Romania. Jaeger, of Brooklyn, who previously worked at Mount Sinai and now runs his own business, was so moved by the family's situation that he called his former hospital colleagues and asked if they'd perform the procedure for free. One of them, Dr. Sujana Chandrasekhar, agreed, and the operation took place Feb. 7.

"What moved me was when the father called me on the phone and said, 'All I want is to hear her say 'da-da.' That gave me goosebumps," Jaeger said.

Cochlear implants have been available since the FDA approved them almost 20 years ago, but they have become so advanced that deaf children as young as 1 year old are getting them.

The implants work by electrically stimulating the damaged hearing nerve. The system consists of a thumbnail-sized magnetic device that is surgically implanted in the deaf person's skull, an attachment in the hair and a microphone that sits behind the ear. A speech processor is also used and, in Patricia's case, worn like a tiny backpack.

Some controversy about cochlear implants persists, with advocates for the deaf preferring that deaf children accept and embrace their physical characteristic and learn sign language.

Still, as the technology has improved, such differences of opinion appear to be narrowing, said Chandrasekhar.

For Lucia Puia and her husband, there is no debate. In a few months, their daughter will be able to hear her mommy and daddy speak, and they will finally be able to tell her what they always wanted to say.

"I want to tell her that I love her," Puia said.

Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.