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January 6, 2004

Child hears for first time

From: Munster Times, IN - Jan 6, 2004

Cochlear implant changes family's lives

Times staff writer

He seemed a normal baby with a wide smile proudly baring two lower teeth, and a tuft of red hair curling from the top of his head. His image could have been pasted on the label of a baby food jar.

His older sister, Claire, rang a silver bell behind him as he sat on his mother's lap. Then, suddenly, there was a glint of almost stunned recognition in 8-month-old Kevin Johnston's blue-gray eyes and a sharp turn of his head. He was not perfect after all, but soon would be much closer.

For the first time in his young life, Kevin could really hear.

Hours earlier, Kevin sat among a floor of toys in his Chesterton home wearing a tiny flannel shirt and brown corduroys. He laughed and played and then, as only a content child could, dozed off in a heartbeat on his mother's shoulder.

One barely noticed the oval lump on the side of his head, or the scar that ran downward around his ear. It would be almost impossible for a stranger to know the sounds of life were nearly inaudible for him.

But later that afternoon, while Claire rang the bell, or clicked a wooden noisemaker, or an audiologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago stimulated electrodes through a laptop computer, it became obvious Kevin was hearing for the first time.

Last December, Kevin became the youngest ever recipient in Illinois of a cochlear implant, a surgically inserted coil that receives impulses through a magnetic transmitter. On Monday, doctors activated the device for the first time.

"This is going to be the birthday for Kevin's ears," said Dr. Nancy Young, head of the hospital's otology section and founder of the hospital's implant program.

About 500 children born each year in Illinois would qualify for the procedure, Young said. The first implant on a child was performed in 1991. The youngest child ever to have the surgery was about 6 months old, she said.

"With the implant, there's a learning curve -- you have to learn how to listen," said Young, noting the curve lessens the younger the patient is.

Essentially, a coil with a magnetic end is surgically inserted into the patient's head and attached to the cochlea. A transmitter magnetically adheres to the coil -- sticking to the side of the head -- and then runs from a wire into a speech processor about the size of a cellular phone.

Complete hearing will take a little time for Kevin. When the device was activated, an audiologist tested it by sending tones into the 24 electrodes in the implant until he showed recognition of a new noise in each. Next, a program will be built and adjusted every two weeks.

Meanwhile, Kevin will continue to see a therapist. When the process is complete, he will return a few times a year to adjust the program

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