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November 19, 2003

Making the deaf hear

From: Pioneer Press Online, IL - Nov 19, 2003

Couple's world opens up through surgical implants


Deep heavy bass tones was all that Russ Ewald, 30, was used to hearing, with the help of his hearing aid.

But now, he has his hearing restored and, with practice, will be able to hear words and sounds much clearer than he ever had.

Ewald's cochlear implant has been activated and tested at Loyola University Health System. Ewald underwent cochlear implant surgery on Oct. 2 after he noticed how well the procedure worked for his wife, Jenni, 29. She had the surgery in April.

"I can hear it; it sounds like three beeps," he said to Candace Blank, an audiologist at the hospital, who was running tests on his implant earlier this month.

The Ewalds both lost their hearing after contracting meningitis when they were children. They could hear, to a certain extent, with the help of hearing aids, but Jenni wanted more and was the first to see what could be done.

Russ is a research and development system technician and Jenni is a victim-assistance counselor for the Chicago Hearing Society.

They have an 18-month-old girl and Jenni opted to get the surgery first because she wanted to better respond to the needs of their child. Prior to the surgery, she couldn't fully hear her daughter, Camille, cry, but now she can.

"I could hear her cry (to a certain extent with the help of her hearing aid and signaling devices to alert her if the baby began crying), but I think that there were many sounds I was missing," she said. "I can now hear my daughter's footsteps.

"It's really amazing. I was in the bathroom the other day and I heard Buffy (their cat) come near. I could also hear my husband playing with the cat and I told him to stop teasing the cat and he was surprised that I heard him."

Dr. John P. Leonetti, professor of otology and neurotology, who performed the surgery on Russ, said the cochlear implant is a small, but complex system that uses a computer, radio waves and a surgical implant receiver to bypass the non-working parts of the ear and deliver signals to the brain. The cochlea is the snail-shaped part of the inner ear, which is responsible for hearing.

The cochlear implant contains external and internal components. The external portion of the implant consists of a microphone, speech processor (computer microchip), cable and transmitter coil. The internal portions are a receiver and electrodes.

The receiver is surgically implanted just under the skin behind the ear. The electrodes are surgically implanted into the inner ear.

Leonetti said the microphone, which is worn behind the ear, picks up sound and sends it to the speech processor, which is a small computer that analyzes and digitizes sound into an electrical code. The code is then sent, via cable, to a transmitter coil worn behind the ear, which sends it, via radio waves, through the skin to the surgically implanted receiver. The receiver decodes the signal and sends the information to the electrodes in the cochlea, which stimulate the hearing nerve fibers.

"The implant will bring him up to normal hearing," Leonetti said. "He'll be able to hear footsteps, rain and whispers."

He said as far as understanding conversations, it depends on the person.

"How much speech (a person understands) depends on what he or she puts into it," he said. "I encourage them to use Books on Tape to learn how to speak and understand words."

Blank said the new technology can help more deaf people than could be helped several years ago.

"It's dwindling and dwindling (the number of deaf who remain that way)," she said. "A baby born deaf can be mainstreamed into a regular classroom at first grade (after receiving the implant)."

She said there is still a lot of work to do because there are a half-million people who are potential candidates for the surgery.

Russ Ewald said that a lot of people in the deaf community are skeptical about possibly improving their hearing because it may not work and they don't want to be let down.

But the Ewalds are living proof that it can happen.

Russ said they have friends in the deaf community and they will continue to use sign language to communicate with them.

For now, the Ewalds will enjoy the new world they've entered and anticipate the day when they will both hear the pitter-patter of little feet in their home. The Ewalds are expecting their second child this spring.

To schedule an appointment with Leonetti for a surgery evaluation, call (708) 216-3835.

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