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May 25, 2003

Noise a beautiful thing

From: Battle Creek Enquirer, MI - May 25, 2003

By Jeri Allen
For the Enquirer

Christine Warner has lived in a silent world for the past couple of years.

She says it can be a scary place, not hearing an approaching car or the cries of a hurt grandchild in her care.

So the fact that the lifelong Battle Creek resident has made medical history is secondary in her book to the fact that she can hear words of love from her family again.

Warner was the first patient at the University of Michigan hospital to hear again after receiving an electronic device called an auditory brainstem implant.

The problems began in early 1988 when Warner first noticed some loss of hearing in her right ear, along with headaches and dizziness. After seeing a local doctor, she was referred to the neurospecialists at the U-M hospital in Ann Arbor.

She was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis type II, which caused tumors to form along her auditory nerve. Surgery was performed to remove a tumor, causing deafness in her right ear.

She got the devastating news that tumors were forming along the auditory nerves on her left side in 1992.

After several surgeries to reduce the tumor on the left side, Warner eventually was rendered completely deaf. Her second grandchild had just been born, and Warner knew she would never be able to hear that child's voice. She deeply missed hearing the sounds of her husband's voice, and other loved ones. Not hearing music also affected her deeply.

Considering other options, Warner's medical specialist, Dr. Alex Arts, recommended her as a candidate for an auditory brainstem implant.

The surgery had been performed by neurosurgeon Dr. William Hitselberger in Los Angeles since 1979 as a way for deaf people to hear via electrical impulses transmitted to a receiver placed on their brainstem.

Having been through so much already, and facing a long trip to the surgeon, Warner didn't feel up to the challenge. But in August 2002, the U-M arranged for Hitselberger to come to Ann Arbor and perform the surgery in Michigan for the first time.

After a 16-hour surgery to implant an electrical device at the base of her brainstem, Warner came back home to recuperate, heal and wait for the day she would go back to Ann Arbor to have the device activated.

When the big day finally came, Warner was in for another huge disappointment -- the activation failed and she still was completely deaf. Experts believed that the precision-placed device had shifted during the healing process and now wasn't able to stimulate the brainstem properly.

The two choices left were to let the medical team go back in and reposition the implant, or let it go and remain in a completely silent world. Warner felt she had been though enough surgeries and just wanted to be left alone. She could communicate by sign language and was adept at reading lips.

That's when the love of her husband, children and grandchildren took her the rest of the way.

She agreed to another surgery for the sake of her family, and on Jan. 22, the implant was repositioned. After that second healing period and a long, discouraging activation process, Warner was sure she never would hear again. The audiologist was near the end of the testing for activation when a noise finally came through to Warner that resembled a Volkswagen horn honking.

"I think I just heard something," she told the technician. "Do it again."

It was an emotional time for Warner and her husband. Even the medical team was overjoyed. This was the very first time anyone had undergone repositioning of the ABI device with positive results.

There still is much work for Warner.

Unfortunately, even with the implant, she cannot hear the way most of us do. She's been told that consistent usage of the device over years will help her become accustomed to the way things sound now.

She still relies on lip reading to communicate with others, and the implant helps her to understand more quickly.

She has noticed the way ordinary noises such as water from the faucet, the phone ringing or a spoon falling on the floor sound different now from what she remembers.

More importantly, she has heard her 14-month-old granddaughter call her "momma," and delights in the fact that her 16-year-old son, Michael, recently said "I love you, Mom" and she was able to hear him.

"It's exciting. I grieved over not hearing my husband and the voices of the people I love; now I've got that back. It's going to keep getting better. I'll have more freedom in my life and feel better about going out by myself. I've got good things coming."

Jeri Allen of Battle Creek is the wife of Enquirer photographer Doug Allen.

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