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August 21, 2003

Little boy hears his world for the first time

From: KUSA, CO - Aug 21, 2003

Written by 9NEWS reporter Cheryl Preheim

ENGLEWOOD - When Kobe Johnson was a year old, he playfully got down on all fours, and imitated a barking dog. Except he didn't make a sound. His parents suddenly realized something was wrong. Kobe was deaf.

9NEWS Reporter Cheryl Preheim shares the moment that Kobe hears for the first time.

On Wednesday, that changed. Hearing specialists activated a cochlear implant which gave Kobe the opportunity to hear for the first time in his life.

The experience might have startled brave men. Kobe, who is now two, was completely spooked.

Just before the implant was activated, Kobe's mother watched him take a nap on the floor at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood. The family arrived late the previous evening from Grand Junction. Kobe was wiped out. His grandmother, Martha Johnson, accidentally triggered a loud toy, and gasped out of concern it would wake him. It's always been easy to forget that sounds couldn't disturb Kobe.

"I don't think he has any idea what is going to happen," said the boy's mother, Denise Johnson. "I think he'll be frightened and hide his face."

Audiologist Allison Biever evaluated the implant, and said everything looked perfect. She prepared to test the device by triggering a series of beeps. They'd indicate the range that he would be capable of hearing. "We want soft sounds to be soft and loud sounds to be loud," she said.

A magnet clinging to the cochlear implant under Kobe's scalp, will stimulate the nerves in his ear when it's turned on.

Biever knows, from experience, that the test will confuse Kobe.

"He's going to hear all sorts of things...none of them are going to make any sense to him."

As she begins the test - he wakes up completely from his morning stupor - and runs to his father's arms. Ron Johnson hugs his son, and cheers, "Go! Yeah, Kobe. Good listening!"

Biever begins to increase the volume, taking it up to 80%.

"Sometimes when it starts to get loud, the child will get clingy," she says. "OK, here we go...a little scary. Good job, Kobe. That's great. We heard that too!"

Then she boosts the beeps to 100% volume. The levels are set, and Kobe is ready to hear the sound of his mother's voice for the first time.

Denise Johnson takes him on her lap, leans over, and waits for the activation.

"Here we go...hey buddy...buddy. Kobe, Hi," she whispers.

He grabs his security blanket, and pulls it over his face.

"Buddy, it's OK," she says, and begins to sob softly. Kobe's father is also in tears. His mother tries to reassure him, that it's not scary, but her tone is the only thing that he might be able to understand, until he has more experience with language and the sounds of the world. For now, none of these noises make sense.

A kitten-shaped toy with jingle bells is offered, and shaken, but the audiologist advises it be shaken gently, because it, too, could scare him.

Slowly, Kobe takes the blanket down from his face, and grabs the first toy he's ever heard. In the weeks to come, his parents will try to teach him what each sound is. Eventually, with therapy, Kobe will learn how to talk. Doctors say he has a good chance of speaking normally because he received his implant so young.

The Johnsons say they are grateful to a non-profit group called the Colorado Neurological Institute, which coordinated donations to help pay for the implant. The family's HMO wouldn't cover the estimated $65,000 cost. Denise Johnson says she is concerned about paying for ongoing therapy.

The first cochlear implants were used in adults in 1985. Children began receiving them in 1990. Some within the deaf community have criticized their use, challenging the assumption that people without hearing can't function as well in society. But Denise Johnson says, once they recognized Kobe's deafness, and learned about the implant, they never hesitated.

"We live in the hearing world and we wanted him to have all the opportunites that we have so it wasn't hard for us. I know that some people chose the other way," she said.

Today, back home in Grand Junction, Kobe will hear his dog bark. His parents say they can't wait to watch him imitate the dog again - this time, with sound effects.

(Copyright 2003 by 9NEWS KUSA-TV, All Rights Reserved)