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July 2, 2003

Cochlear implant brings a new world of sound to 11-year-old

From: Kansas City Star, MO - Jul 2, 2003

Special to The Star

Eleven-year-old Catherine Rechenberger knows her mother loves her.

Yet until a few weeks ago, she had never heard Sheila Rechenberger say, "I love you."

On June 9, Catherine heard those words for the first time. In fact, because of a cochlear implant, she's hearing a lot of things she's never heard before.

The squeak of a pantry door. The song of birds. The voices of family and friends. One of her favorite sounds is the bark of her dog, Patches.

"She likes to hear Patches," Sheila Rechenberger said. "Now when she hears the barking, Catherine realizes somebody is at the door."

The Northland sixth-grader was born deaf. In May, she underwent surgery for a cochlear implant in one ear. A computerized device, the implant allows individuals to hear because it bypasses the damaged cochlea and stimulates the auditory nerve directly.

After the surgery, Catherine waited a month to heal before the implant was activated. The next day, she met the woman who inspired her to have the implant -- Miss America 1995, Heather Whitestone McCallum. She was in Kansas City on June 10 for a fund-raiser for the Midwest Ear Institute, 4200 Pennsylvania Ave.

Catherine initially met McCallum eight years ago during a sign-language class at Children's Mercy Hospital. McCallum read a children's book aloud that day as an interpreter signed her words. Catherine has a photo of herself taken with McCallum and an autographed copy of the book.

"I think it's cool that there was a deaf Miss America," Catherine said through sign language.

Catherine communicates through sign language with her family: her sisters, Jessica, 16, and Tricia, 15, and her parents, Sheila and Walter Rechenberger of Kansas City, North.

Many of her friends from Maple Park Middle School sign as well. The cochlear implant will help her hear those who don't sign.

Catherine became interested in a cochlear implant after McCallum had the same surgery in September 2002. McCallum decided to have an implant after her older son fell and she couldn't hear him crying.

Catherine's decision came after a volleyball practice in December.

"She came home and told me she wanted to hear the girls on the volleyball team when they called for the ball," said Walter Rechenberger.

Although her parents supported her decision, the family's health insurance carrier refused to cover the surgery at first. Catherine's condition was deemed not to be life-threatening, Sheila Rechenberger said.

Rechenberger wrote to the insurance carrier, urging the company to reconsider. She described Catherine's discomfort and withdrawal from family gatherings with members who didn't know sign language.

While deafness might not be a "life-threatening" situation, Rechenberger wrote, it would certainly be "life-enhancing."

She asked the insurance company to "give an 11-year-old girl a chance to soar."

The company reversed its decision within days of receiving the letter and the Rechenbergers scheduled the surgery at St. Luke's Hospital of Kansas City.

"Catherine is doing really well with the implant," her mother said.

Adjusting to the novelty of noise, Catherine has begun auditory training. Spoken words are only sound to her right now. The training will help her make sense of what she hears.

McCallum's advice to Catherine is "to be patient with the new sounds you hear. It is like being in a different country and hearing people speak a different language and not understanding them."

Although Catherine admires McCallum, she said she doesn't want to wear the crown of Miss America.

"I want to be a vet," Catherine signed. "I want to care for pets when they're sick."

© 2003 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.