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June 11, 2003

Former Miss America inspires others to have procedure to restore hearing

From: Kansas City Star, MO - Jun 11, 2003

The Kansas City Star

Sixth-grader Catherine Rechenberger spoke enthusiastically through sign language to former Miss America Heather Whitestone McCallum on Tuesday at the Midwest Ear Institute.

Catherine, 11, who was born deaf, was excited to meet the woman who inspired her to have a cochlear implant. Catherine began to seriously consider having the procedure after McCallum successfully got an implant in August 2002.

On Monday, Rechenberger's implant was turned on, and she said she was looking forward to speaking with her friends and volleyball teammates.

The Kansas City girl was among about 40 persons who gathered to meet McCallum, who later Tuesday was to be guest auctioneer at an "anything but silent" auction to benefit the institute, 4200 Pennsylvania Ave.

In 1995, McCallum became the first woman with a disability to be crowned Miss America. She had been deaf since she was 18 months old. The cochlear implant has restored some of the hearing she lost as a child.

Cochlear implants are surgically implanted in the ears of people who are profoundly deaf. The implant bypasses nonfunctioning parts of the ear and sends signals to the auditory nerve and the brain, allowing the person to hear.

McCallum, who has been a spokeswoman for the deaf community, said she was honored to meet children who have cochlear implants because they work so hard to learn new sounds and communicate verbally.

McCallum said she decided to get the implant because she could not hear the first words or the cries of her two young sons.

"I feel really honored (to be a role model), especially after I had my two boys," she said.

The institute is a Kansas City nonprofit cochlear implant center that also provides auditory and balance testing. The institute solicits donations to provide services to those who cannot afford the fees.

Wayne Huey, 45, drove from Jamesport, Mo., to help with the fund-raising event because institute doctors restored his hearing, which he began to lose in 1993.

Huey had worn hearing aids all his life, but he said doctors told him the quick deterioration during the 1990s probably was caused by a bone infection in his teenage years and by subsequent antibiotics.

By 1997, Huey could not hear in his left ear, and he lost all hearing in his right ear by 1999. He was forced to give up his commercial driver's license and his career as a truckdriver because he no longer could pass the U.S. Department of Transportation physical. It requires hearing in at least one ear.

Huey and his wife, Darlene, sold their small farm in Indiana and moved to Missouri in 2000 to farm full time. Huey began seeing specialists at the Midwest Ear Institute. The institute was participating in U.S. Food and Drug Administration trials of cochlear implants in both ears and asked Huey whether he would like to participate. Currently, most people only have an implant in one ear.

Huey agreed to participate in the trial because the information gathered from the study could help children who have never been able to hear.

Huey had the surgery July 11, 2002, and his implants were turned on Aug. 8. Because Huey had been deaf only a few years, his brain still remembered sounds. Within six months, his hearing had been completely restored.

Huey compares the two implants with having stereo sound, whereas one is like hearing an AM radio.

"I never figured they'd work this good," Huey said.

Huey passed his Transportation Department physical in October, three months after his implants were turned on.

"After harvest this year, I will be back on the road full time," he said.

A cochlear implant also has significantly affected the life of 3-year-old Berryton, Kan., native Reagan Emerson. Reagan, who was born deaf, received the implant when she was 9 months old.

Allison Emerson, Reagan's mother, said she feared for Reagan's language development because she felt her daughter was ill-prepared to learn sign language. Emerson said she and her husband thought the implant would allow Reagan to communicate more easily with them and her two older sisters.

Reagan is in speech therapy, but Emerson said Reagan's language development is on track for a child her age.

To reach Joanna Dornfeld, call (816) 234-4899 or send e-mail to .

Coming up

The Midwest Ear Institute will hold its 16th annual Sounds in Kansas City Golf Classic at 8 a.m. today at Deer Creek Golf Club , 700 W. 133rd St. in Overland Park.

Copyright 2002 Knight Ridder. All Rights Reserved