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February 16, 2004

Efforts of many help local 8-year-old girl

From: Wilkes Barre Citizen's Voice - Wilkes Barre,PA,USA - Feb 16, 2004

By Debby Higgins , Citizens' Voice Staff Writer

Jessica Vargo and her family were eagerly awaiting Santa's arrival on Christmas Eve. Jessica and her brother, R.J., were reading Christmas stories to each other and singing cheery holiday songs with their parents. Then Jessica's world went silent.

Jessica has been totally deaf since birth. Although she had no memory of sound, thanks to modern technology, she has been able to hear with the help of a cochlear implant.

Unfortunately, mechanical devices break and Jessica's decided to break down on Christmas Eve.

"Jessie looked at me and she said she can't hear," Candy, her mother, said. "At that point I thought it may be something minor like the battery."

But, as Candy quickly found out, the problem wouldn't be so easy to fix. Jessica was heartbroken.

"I replaced the battery with a fresh one and nothing happened. I changed the cord. Still nothing. Then we thought we should call Sue," Candy said.

Sue Zerfoss is a teacher and hearing specialist LIU 18's program for the hearing impaired located in Dallas.

"It sounded like the problem may have been with the headphone. We tried another one but it still didn't work," Zerfoss said.

The cochlear implant, or bionic ear, is a device, part internal, part external, that takes external sounds changes them into electrical impulses, transfers them internally to another device implanted inside the ear that changes the electrical impulses back to sounds channeled directly to the nerve.

Jessica has had a cochlear implant since she was 4 years old. Her father, Rob, said her first implant surgery was conducted at Johns Hopkins University.

"At the time, information on cochlear implants was scarce. Before we knew the hearing center existed, I got my information from the Internet. That's how we found out about Johns Hopkins," Rob said.

Jess was 3 years old when she underwent her first cochlear implant surgery, Rob said.

"Everyone's hearing is different. We were told Jess's first cochlear implant created sounds that were mechanical or robotic. But, she could hear and that's what we cared about most," Rob remembered.

After Zerfoss determined she could not fix the problem, the family and Zerfoss thought it would be best to call Johns Hopkins for advice.

"It was a holiday. No one called us back on Christmas Eve. We were really trying to find out what was wrong, so we called Children's Hospital in Philadelphia," Rob said.

Once again modern technology entered and thanks to remote computer software, videoconferencing and computers, the problem was quickly identified.

"We called Dr. Kevin Franck at CHOP (Children's Hospital of Philadelphia) and we found out what was going on," Rob said. The hearing center has a computer link with CHOP so problems just like Jessica's can be identified quickly. The hospital tracked Dr. Franck down at his mother-in-law's house.

"Kevin even contacted the representative from Advance Bionics, the company that makes the cochlear implant. I can't begin to thank them for all their efforts," Rob said.

The problem was identified as being internal and surgery was needed.

"I signed to Jess that she would have to return to the hospital for another operation. She ran out to her father's truck and got his cell phone. 'Call now,' she said to me. She wanted me to call the hospital so she could go right then," Candy said.

Despite the fact it was Christmas, CHOP doctors, technicians and Dr. Franck scheduled replacement surgery for Jessica the Tuesday before New Year's Eve.

"We were home for the New Year. Everyone was just amazing. Even the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia was terrific," Candy said.

Jessica and her family returned three times to CHOP to have her new implant fine tuned. She was able to hear about a week after the surgery.

Today, the second grader is singing to music on the radio and dancing all over the place.

"There is a big difference with her new implant. She can even hear music. The new technology has provided a much more sensitive device, much better than the first one," Rob added.

"We're so pleased to have the center here to help children like Jessica. We encourage parents and adults to contact us with any questions about hearing loss, aides and cochlear implants. We have the technology, the information and we're here to help," Zerfoss said.

"And, we're happy to talk to any parents who have questions. We want to share our experiences with others," Rob said.

The Hearing Center is located in Dallas. Along with the diagnostic center, the facility also houses the Early Intervention Pre-School/Transition Program for the Hearing Impaired. For more information, call 675-3582.

©The Citizens Voice 2004