IM this article to a friend!

May 18, 2004

Grateful woman suddenly finds she relishes things she now hears

From: Belleville News-Democrat - Belleville,IL,USA - May 18, 2004


Kathy Allen surprised a lot of doctors. She even surprised herself.

Allen, 43, was born completely deaf. When she received a cochlear implant five years ago, she didn't expect to hear voices clearly or be able to speak well.

"They told me I would not do as well; I would not hear speech," said Allen, a native of Edwardsville who now lives in the Chicago suburb of Lansing.

Today, Allen talks and hears voices so well that she works full time as an educational ambassador for Cochlear Americas, the same company that manufactured her implant.

In April, she helped escort the first deaf Miss America, Heather Whitestone McCallum, during McCallum's visit and speaking tour in Chicago. McCallum was crowned in September 1994.

"She didn't get to hear them call her name. The (first-runnerup) told her she won," Allen said.

McCallum received an implant two years ago.

About 75,000 people worldwide have had cochlear implants since the invention went on the market in 1988. Three companies produce the implants.

The best candidates for full hearing are people who heard sounds and spoke before they were deafened by illness or injury.

Allen had heard only some vibrations, like the drum she played in the Edwardsville High School band.

Allen said she underwent the three-hour implant operation at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis because she thought she would at least be able to hear music and other sounds around her.

"I love music," she said.

Doctors implanted devices in her inner ear that mimic normal human hearing and trick the brain into responding to the sounds. A small transmitter she wears on her head sends the outside sounds to the devices inside her ear.

Allen had nine months of intensive therapy to train her brain for its new work. She also got a boost from her sister, Lorie Howard of Edwardsville.

"My sister read to me every day," Allen said. "My sister was my rock. She was my No. 1 supporter, and still is."

Howard, one year younger than Allen, also helped her as a teen to talk on the phone by passing messages.

"My sister was the one who beat up other kids for teasing me, too," Allen said.

Howard now is a mother of three and lunchroom monitor at N.O. Nelson School in Edwardsville. Allen's parents, Tom and Sandy Allen, also live in Edwardsville.

After her operation, Allen faced new challenges.

Allen said hearing everyday sounds for the first time was an adventure.

"My ears were the same as a newborn baby," she said. "I didn't know running water made noise. I didn't know we made noise when we went to the bathroom. I said, 'I'm never doing that in (a public restroom) again.'"

Many times, others had to identify sounds for Allen.

"They'd say, 'That's the door bell,'" she said.

One of Allen's favorite sound memories is hearing her nephew's heartbeat while her sister was pregnant. She also gets a kick out of the wind.

"Did you know the wind sounds different in different seasons? And wind sounds different in the trees. I think that's so cool," she said.

Other favorites include birds singing, harp music and the sounds of her nine nieces and one nephew at play.

As a deaf person, Allen had one advantage -- she taught herself to lip read as a toddler.

"I was a very good lip reader," she said.

But the lip-reading ability -- a gift that cannot be taught -- also caused her deafness to remain unknown to others until she was 5.

"They thought I was so absorbed in television that I just didn't come when I was called," she said.

As a lip-reader, Allen missed out on the voice inflections involved in jokes and sarcastic remarks.

"I took it seriously," she said.

She also dreaded social events because she knew she'd be left out of the conversations. Anxiety sometimes made her physically ill before family reunions and other large gatherings, she said.

The woman who now talks to everybody in sight is the "New Kathy," she said.

"I'm not the same person I used to be," she said. "I was withdrawn and depressed. I would just read a lot instead."

Allen lip read her way though an associate's degree at Lewis and Clark College in Godfrey, a bachelor's degree at McMurray College in Jacksonville and a master's degree in counseling and psychology at the University of Illinois.

Before she joined Cochlear Americas, Allen was state coordinator for deaf and hard of hearing services with the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Her current job keeps her traveling over a 10-state region. She often attends support group meetings and talks to individuals who are considering cochlear implant surgery. Many are needlessly afraid they will be in pain after the out-patient surgery, she said.

"Kids who have it are up and running and going to McDonald's the same day," she said.

© 2004 Belleville News-Democrat and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.