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December 10, 2003

Technology helps Lewiston man break 40 years of silence

From: IdahoStatesman.com, ID - Dec 10, 2003

LEWISTON — The blinking light he once depended on to signal a phone call now sits dusty and neglected in the corner.

Although he will never forget 40 years of being deaf, he chooses to keep that memory somewhere in the back of his mind, much in the same way the light is kept in the corner.

Still, for 56-year-old Terry Harbison of Lewiston, life began again May 29, 2002, when his cochlear implant was activated — the first day of being able to hear since he was 16.

"Sound was weird at first. I couldn't believe all the things I could hear."

Harbison did his best in the months before the surgery to prepare to hear his favorite sound again: music. Before the day his implant was activated, he made a CD containing his favorite music.

Driving home from the doctor's office, he decided to play the CD, not knowing whether his ears were yet fit to hear the sounds he loves best.

Track one: the 1962 hit "Roses Are Red" by Bobby Vinton.

"I had to pull over and just sit there. I had tears coming down my eyes. I could not believe I could hear it. When I was a kid, 13 or 14, I used to play that song over and over."

Harbison, a Texas native, had a middle ear infection at the age of 2 and lost hearing in his left ear. By the age of 11, he had lost most of his hearing in both ears. Harbison's hearing was completely gone at 16 as a result of a physical altercation with a schoolmate.

Since that incident, "if I took a radio and put it up to my ear and turned it way up, I could hear it," he says, "but I couldn't understand a thing."

The most he could hear from that time on was faint decipherings of extremely loud noises, such as a fire alarm. He was sent to a school for the deaf, where it took him a year and a half to learn sign language.

Deciding to take his education a step farther, he went to Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C., for a year and a half before dropping out and moving home.

"Back in those days, the only thing college for the deaf was good for was for you to become a teacher. I never really wanted to become a teacher. I don't have the patience."

So Harbison went to work in the printing business. By the end of his career, he had gained so much knowledge as a printing press operator that he was regularly training new employees.

Still, because of his disability, he was repeatedly denied promotion at six different printing shops.

"When you get hired, you do a good job and move up in the rankings. But the hearing people keep putting the deaf people down, just because they can't answer the phone.

"I didn't have any trouble holding a job. I was good at what I did."

Although his co-workers and bosses treated him with respect, he was routinely paid less.

"It's just the way that people treat you. It just drives me nuts, all because I couldn't talk on the phone. I get tired of not being treated fairly.

"Very few people take an interest in wanting to communicate with deaf people," he adds. "They just don't want to put in the effort. It's funny, little children communicate more with deaf kids. But when they grow up, they don't want to put in the effort, I guess."

Harbison first found out about cochlear implants about 15 years ago but was discouraged by his doctor to undergo the operation because of its low success rate at the time.

In 2002, he decided to revisit the topic with the same doctor and found out technological advances had significantly increased the device's effectiveness.

The device works by converting sound to digital signals through a processor worn on the outside of the ear.

These signals are then sent to a small headpiece positioned just above the ear and secured to the head by a magnet.

The digital signals are then sent through the skin to the implant, using radio frequency waves.

Finally, the information is delivered to the hearing nerve, bypassing the damaged nerves. Although he had been deaf for nearly four decades, Harbison still had a memory of hearing and had used his voice to communicate.

That helped increase his chances of success after the operation, said Kami Fehlig, clinical audiologist at the Spokane Ear Nose and Throat Clinic.

"He's done phenomenally well," Fehlig said. "He's beat the odds and gone above and beyond anything I've expected."

Edition Date: 12-10-2003

© 2003 IdahoStatesman.com