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June 19, 2003

Northland youth receives cochlear implant, meets hero

From: Gladstone Sun News, MO - Jun 19, 2003

By: Kellie Houx, Assistant Editor

Catherine Rechenberger, 11, met one of her heroes. Heather Whitestone McCallum, the first deaf woman in history to be crowned Miss America, 1995.

Catherine most admires McCallum for deciding to receive an inner-ear implant, just as Catherine has done.

Catherine's parents, Sheila and Walter Rechenberger, Kansas City-North, have kept Catherine informed about medical advancements to improve hearing loss. They have kept watch on candidates and the outcome of the implants.

"We knew that for a while, doctors did not think profoundly deaf people like Catherine would benefit from the implants. Then it changed," Sheila said. "Our goal is to make sure Catherine can hear fire alarms and car horns. With time and training, we hope she can hear some sound and it will help with lip reading."

Inner-ear implants replace the function of damaged hearing nerve fibers in the cochlea by electrically stimulating other surviving fibers. The implanted device comes with an external speech processor that converts sound into coded signals.

Four to six weeks after surgery, an audiologist activates the system and digitally programs it to suit the individual.

Catherine's surgery occurred May 15.

Midwest Ear Institute audiologist Lisa Buckler activated Catherine's implant June 9 and Buckler started the modulations that will work best for Catherineon June 10, the same day she met McCallum.

Midwest Ear Institute, 4200 Pennsylvania in Westport, is affiliated with Saint Luke's Health System. McCallum came to town as a guest auctioneer for a fund-raiser for the non-profit organization.

"Catherine learned that Heather wanted her cochlear implant so she could hear her sons crying," Sheila said. "Heather is Catherine's inspiration."

In September last year, Catherine decided she wanted an implant.

"I want to talk to my friends," Catherine said, through signing.

"We had our first meeting in December," Sheila said.

Buckler said because Catherine has extensive medical history on her deafness that the pre-operational tests took one day.

"We then sent her for a CAT scan," Buckler said. "Then we waited for insurance to approve the surgery."

During the session at MEI, Catherine heard her first word, "bop." The day before, her dad and sisters, Tricia and Jessica, had a water fight. Tricia screamed and then Jessica and Catherine heard them. She then heard her dog Patches bark.

"I want to hear music," she said.

When McCallum traveled the country as Miss America, then 3-year-old Catherine met McCallum. She gave Catherine a Barney book called "Just Imagine."

McCallum told Catherine implant-aided hearing is like visiting another country.

"You can start hearing people talking, but you don't completely understand," she said.

McCallum not only offered advice, but gave Catherine a copy of her newest book, "Let God Surprise You." The last chapter is about McCallum's experience with the implant.

"I was scared during the first week because everything seemed so loud. A friend encouraged me to keep the implant. I would not give it up now for anything," she said.

Catherine then shared some of her pastimes with McCallum.

Catherine plays volleyball and swims. Her hope is also to hear the whistle at a volleyball game. She cannot wear the external processor or pack while swimming. Sheila serves as a back-up to another judge who starts her with a hand signal.

"I was not scared to have it turned on," Catherine said. "I am brave and proud of myself."

Catherine will enter sixth grade at Maple Park Middle School. Sheila said the Park Hill School District contracts for services including those for hearing impaired and deaf children.

Sheila said North Kansas City School District teachers have already said they will help with services.

"I wouldn't give others the advice to pursue the implant," Catherine said. "People have to make the decision on their own. I wanted this for me."

Catherine wants to be a veterinarian after college.

©Sun-News of the Northland 2003