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June 16, 2003

Recipients of ear implant gather

From: Miami Herald, FL - Jun 16, 2003


For those chatting away over burgers and chips, each exchange of pleasantries was a minor miracle, considering that a few years ago every one of them was nearly deaf.

About 100 cochlear implant recipients of all ages gathered Sunday morning at the Miami Seaquarium for an annual picnic along with their parents, children, siblings, and the medical professionals from the University of Miami's Ear Institute who restored their hearing.

''It's like a new life,'' said Jim Clanton, who got his implant when he was 47 years old. ''For me, too,'' interjected Elaine, his wife of 25 years.

''The first 19 years of our marriage we couldn't communicate on the telephone,'' she said. ''It's been absolutely fabulous.''

For some, the picnic afforded an opportunity to say thanks.

''You did a hell of a job on my wife,'' a man told Dr. Thomas Balkany, medical director of the Ear Institute and a pioneer in the technology. ''Now you have to be careful,'' Balkany jokingly replied. The humor does little to mitigate the man's outpouring of gratitude. ''She can't get over the birds chirping,'' he said.

A cochlear implant is a surgically installed electronic device that replaces the mechanism in the ear that transforms sounds into electronic signals.

Getting a cochlear implant is not merely an operation but the beginning of a process that lasts years, as audiologists and therapists help patients adjust to life as hearing people.

''I feel like we're married to these people,'' said chief of audiology and program director Annelle Hodges.

For at least two of the attendees, the picnic really was a family affair. Implant recipient Kerry Payne is engaged to audiologist Stacy Butts. Payne and his 10-year-old nephew Austin, also an implant recipient, lost their hearing in infancy to the same genetic condition.

Austin, who went through the procedure first at age 4, convinced his uncle to follow suit, counseling him through the difficult process of adjusting to life with sound. ''He was my hero,'' Kerry said.

While many recent implant recipients are toddlers who will never remember a time before sound, for older recipients the transition is often bewildering.

Jack King, who believes himself to be the only practicing audiologist in the country who is also a cochlear implant recipient, had his operation after graduating from college.

''I absolutely hated it the first day they turned it on,'' King recalled. ''It was so noisy, like going from a dark room to walking into bright sunlight on the beach -- overwhelming.''

King had played the cello, sensing only the vibrations, for more than a decade when he got his implant, but he found the experience of actually hearing the instrument so disconcerting that he stopped playing for years after the operation.

Now King delights in his hearing even as he helps others to regain theirs. Patients often tell him that he understands their experiences better than other audiologists, said King, but he added that he doubts that his hearing impairment really makes a difference in helping his patients.

Among his current dreams: hearing cellist Yo-Yo Ma in concert.

© 2003 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.