IM this article to a friend!

June 6, 2003

Boy benefits from rare implant

From: Baytown Sun, TX - Jun 6, 2003

By Deana Nall The Baytown Sun

Timmy Gunn is a giant in more ways than one.

As a member of the Giants Little League team, the Crockett Elementary kindergartner helped his team advance to the playoffs this year. Now the 5-year-old has his sights set on a future career in baseball.

But at the age of 18 months, Timmy celebrated a far more significant triumph by becoming one of the first children that age in the United States to receive a cochlear implant.

When Timmy was born Sept. 2, 1997, his mother Reneé Gunn had no idea her son could not hear. One day when Timmy was 1 year old, Renee was playing with him in the front yard when the sound of wailing sirens approached.

"A fire truck went by and he didn't respond at all," she said.

By the age of 14 months, Timmy was diagnosed with profound deafness, which may have been caused by an antibiotic he received at birth.

The news of Timmy's hearing loss created a strain between Reneé and Timmy's father, who left not long after Timmy's diagnosis. By then, Timmy's sister Mikayla, now 4, had been born.

Reneé was determined to help her son. While attending a dog race in Webster, Reneé spotted a young boy with a wired device in his ear. She learned from the boy's father that the device was a cochlear implant.

Cochlear implants are designed to provide sound information to people with severe to profound nerve deafness. They are surgically implanted and more complex than hearing aids, which simply amplify sound. The implants provide sound waves by stimulating surviving auditory nerve fibers inside the inner ear.

As a result, people with complete hearing loss are able to hear. Cochlear implants were brought to the national spotlight last September, when former Miss America Heather Whitestone McCallum was implanted after suffering profound deafness since the age of 18 months. About 20,000 people worldwide have been fitted with cochlear implants.

When Reneé saw the boy at the races responding to sounds he never would have heard without his cochlear implant, she knew Timmy had to have one.

"That's it," she thought. "We're doing it."

Not long before, the Federal Drug Administration had approved implants for children who were at least 18 months old and profoundly deaf in both ears. Timmy fit the criteria and was approved for the implant.

At 18 months, Timmy underwent the surgical procedure on his right ear. The rectangular-shaped implant was threaded through his cochlea with micro-thin tubing. He also received an external coil above his right ear for transmitting sound, as well as a microphone on his ear.

After six weeks of healing, Timmy returned to the doctor to have his implant activated. Startled by the first sounds he heard, Timmy began crying — a sign to Reneé that the implant was a success.

"Even though he was crying, it was awesome," she said.

Because Timmy had been deaf most of his life before the implant, he is still learning how to listen and speak.

I don't look at him as a deaf child anymore," Reneé said. "I think of him as speech delayed."

He visits Michael Douglas, a speech pathologist at the Houston Ear Research Foundation, every week to work on his speech delay.

"He can understand what you're telling him," said Eric Pettit, Timmy's stepfather and Little League coach. "He just has trouble telling you what he's thinking.

Recently, Timmy's speech has been improving rapidly.

"It's very rewarding to watch him progress," Pettit said. "Just in the last month, so many more words have been coming out of his mouth."

Reneé, Eric, and Reneé's mother, Eileen Johnson, work with Timmy at home, too. They go through flashcards several times a weeks to help Timmy improve his verbal skills.

But like any 5-year-old, sometimes Timmy would rather be playing. When he wants to tune out his parents, he'll just pull his earpiece out.

"You've got to have a lot of patience," Eric said.

Timmy can read lips, and he still uses sign language to communicate when he is swimming or in bed — when his implant must be disconnected. But Reneé and Eric refuse to allow Timmy to rely on sign language around the clock.

"We want him 100 percent oral, and signing can become a crutch," Reneé said.

Although Timmy's implant is permanent, his earpiece will have to be replaced as he grows. In about a year, Timmy may be a candidate for an implant in his left ear. Because of a risk of rejection, implants are done one ear at a time.

For now, Timmy continues to explore the hearing world opened up to him by his cochlear implant. And his parents see the benefits every day. When Timmy's bus driver recently understood Timmy for the first time, the driver told Reneé, "I often ask myself why I do this job. Today, Timmy gave me the reason."

And Timmy's daily progress gives Reneé a reason to look forward to her dream for his future.

"I see him sitting down like you and me and carrying on a conversation," she said.

© 2003 Baytown Sun. All rights reserved.