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January 6, 2004

Deaf baby hears 1st noise after implant

From: Chicago Tribune (subscription), IL - Jan 6, 2004

8-month-old is the youngest in Illinois to get a hearing device. 'This is going to be the birthday of Kevin's ears,' doctor says.

By Tara Deering
Tribune staff reporter

January 6, 2004

The flashing lights and strange faces of the dozen or so reporters and cameramen packed into a small conference room Monday in Children's Memorial Hospital didn't faze 8-month-old Kevin Johnston of Chesterton, Ind.

It wasn't until he heard sound for the first time in his short life that he looked confused and stopped playing with the toy in his hands.

Kevin slowly looked up after an audiologist sent a quiet tone through a cochlear implant, a device that allows the deaf to hear by electrically stimulating nerves in the ear. As the tones grew louder, he started to cry.

Kevin, who was born profoundly deaf because of a genetic disorder, is the youngest person to receive the hearing device in Illinois, hospital officials said.

"It's very exciting because for the most part we expect him to lead a very normal life," said Cindy Johnston, who smiled down at her son sitting on his father's lap.

Kevin is the second of the Johnstons' three children to receive the cochlear device. All three of the Johnston children were born with some level of hearing loss because of a gene mutation. Kevin's older sister, Colleen, 4, also was born profoundly deaf and received a cochlear implant in March 2002. The Johnstons' eldest daughter, Claire, 7, was born moderately deaf and must wear hearing aids.

Doctors discovered Kevin was deaf after performing a state-mandated newborn hearing screening, which was passed in Indiana and Illinois in 1999.

"This is going to be the birthday of Kevin's ears," Dr. Nancy Young, head of otology at Children's Memorial Hospital said Monday, minutes before Kevin's hearing device was activated. Young performed Kevin's implant surgery Dec. 15.

It is estimated that nearly 500 children born deaf in Illinois each year qualify for a cochlear implant, Young said. More candidates for it--children with significant hearing loss--are being identified at an earlier age because of the newborn hearing screening, she said.

The procedure involves implanting an electrode in the inner ear and a transmitter under the skin on the side of the head. A unit worn around the ear picks up sound and sends signals to the transmitter, which are relayed to the electrode.

While the device implanted in Kevin has only been FDA approved for children as young as 12 months old, Young said the surgery has been performed elsewhere in the country on children as young as 6 months.

"It's not unusual for the more experienced health centers to do the surgery instead of waiting a few months," Young said.

Not everyone likes the implant devices.

Cindy Johnston said she was berated while shopping at her local hardware store by a deaf woman who disapproved of her daughter's cochlear implant.

"She said: 'How could you do that to your child? How could you turn her into a robot and make her a patient for life?'" Cindy Johnston said.

"It's a culture. And they don't want the culture to die," she said of cochlear implant opponents. "I understand that, but I think that every family and every person should decide for themselves and not judge other people."

Kevin continued playing Monday as audiologist Stephanie Aston slightly increased the volume of the tones coming through his hearing device. Several times, Kevin looked up and turned toward Aston who was sitting nearby. At one point, he began crying, "because it's something unfamiliar," Aston said.

During the first few months after surgery, Kevin must see an audiologist every two weeks. Eventually, he will only need two to three appointments a year, Aston said.

Cindy and Anthony Johnston said they hope the cochlear implants will allow Kevin and his sister to learn spoken language and communicate with the mainstream world.

Young said the devices have improved substantially since the first multichannel device was FDA-approved for children in the early 1990s. New technology has made the noises heard through the device more natural sounding.

"The odds are in Kevin's favor to develop spoken language and listening skills," Young said. "It's not instantaneous. There is a learning curve. You have to learn how to listen."

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune