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July 7, 2004

Two local girls receive the gift of sound through cochlear implants

From: Black Mountain News, NC - Jul 7, 2004

By Barbara Hootman Staff Writer

Wednesday July 7, 2004

Jessie and Kristen Griffin, sisters, were both born hearing impaired. Today, they live life complete with the gift of hearing through cochlear implants.

Fifteen-year-old Kristen, an Owen Middle School student, had cochlear implant surgery last December.

Watching Jessie go through surgery and therapy was a big help for me in knowing what to expect, she said.

The Griffin sisters join 60,000 other children who are diagnosed each year with severe to profound hearing loss. Hearing impairment of such magnitude, occurring so early in life has a significant effect on speech and language development. Children learn much about their world by listening.

Jessie could not even tell you her name or age while wearing double hearing aids, Renee Griffin, the girls mother and kindergarten teacher at W.D. Williams Elementary, said. She was profoundly deaf and virtually non-verbal.

Kristen has worn hearing aids on both ears since she was three years old, while sister Jessie was only five months when she started wearing double hearing aids.

Even with the hearing aids, Jessie could not hear conversational speech and was truly a deaf child, Renee said. Jessie was categorized as a profoundly deaf child, while Kristen was labeled seriously hearing-impaired.

Children born with such severe hearing handicaps as the Griffin sisters inherit the condition from their parents.

Both parents must carry the gene for deafness, Renee said. However, when the girls marry, unless they should marry someone with the same gene, they will not have children who are likely to be hearing impaired.

After the diagnosis of severe hearing loss is made, parents may choose to have their children taught in either oral language or non-oral, such as sign language. If the parents choose oral language training, hearing aids are fitted to amplify speech and environmental sounds to help the children learn to communicate. When hearing aids do not provide sufficient benefit for oral language development, a cochlear implant is usually suggested. Generally, the greater the hearing loss, the greater the delay in speech and language development.

We did not use sign language with our children, Renee said. We fought hard for them to learn to communicate normally. Some people did not agree with our choice, but we did what we thought was best for the girls, and it turned out really well for them.

A cochlear implant is an electronic prosthetic replacement for damaged cells in the inner ear. It is made up of two parts. The implanted part includes an electronic circuit surgically placed in the skull behind the ear on the mastoid process of the temporal bone. This circuit is attached to a bundle of tiny wires that are inserted into the cochlea. The other part of the device is external and has a microphone, a speech processor, and connecting cables.

Jessie received a cochlear implant when she was four years old. It is the same surgery that former Miss America Heather Whitestone and Rush Limbagh have had to improve their hearing. After surgery, extensive rehabilitation followed.

The rehabilitation would not have been possible without the team of audiologist and surgeons at UNC-Chapel Hill Medical Hospital, Renee said. They have been another Godsend in our lives. Since the surgery, Jessie has been through many changes. She now talks very well and attends public school. The only time she is pulled out of class is for speech therapy three times a week.

Children with cochlear implants cannot play on anything made out of plastic.

I miss being able to play on the slide at school, but there are a lot of other things I can do, Jessie said. My friends treat me great. When I couldnt hear, I used to think everyone thought I was dumb.

Patti Morgan, principal at W.D. Williams Elementary where Jessie is a student, says if one didnt know the child had a hearing problem, you would never know it by her participation in school.

Jessie is a unique student with her own talents, skills, strengths and dreams, like every other student, she said. She participates like any other child in school. She is involved in a number of after school activities such as square dancing and violin lessons. All students are encouraged to come by my office for a visit and Jessie likes to come by to share the latest addition to her family, a gerbil, or kitten. She likes to share her success and accomplishments. Also, she is a budding artist. Jessie always has a smile and a hug to share.

Kristen began loosing more of her hearing last year in one ear and knew she wanted a cochlear implant like her sister had received.

I always said, if I lose my hearing, I want the cochlear implant, she said.

The surgery was a success.

Now she is hearing sounds she did not realize she had been missing, Renee said.

Dean Griffin, the girls father and an employee of the Buncombe County Health Center as a child services coordinator, says Kristen became discouraged at first with the implant.

The brain has to adjust to the new stimuli it is receiving, he said. We kept telling her that it would get better, just be patient and give it a chance. She had the implant surgery, and within the past month or two, we have noticed that she is really adjusting to it. It took about six months of struggling with it, and then the adjustment started to show. It isnt instant hearing without some difficulties.

It you cant hear, you dont really know what you have been missing.

Kristen is still amazed at how much she did not hear.

I hear a lot of things that I didnt even know was there, Kristen said.

Rearing hearing impaired children is challenging in many ways.

It is a challenge every day, Renee said. Sometimes it is an extreme challenge. It is really hard financially to have two girls that cant hear. For example, the hearing aids, batteries that cost $200 a piece, and audiograms are not covered by insurance. The insurance company didnt even want to cover the surgery. Blue Cross and Blue Shield thought the surgery was too experimental. They covered one specific implant and that one was obsolete. We had to fight to get the surgery covered. With Kristen, they werent sure if the surgery was medically necessary.

The Griffins feel their two hearing-impaired daughters have been total blessings to them as parents.

Our belief is that God gave them to us to raise and train in the way they should go. It was heart-breaking when the doctors told us Jessie would never speak and would always need someone with her in public because she would never be able to function on her own. Today she hears and speaks well, and is coming along socially. Today the girls are well adjusted and independent.

Dean points out that not everyone agrees with the cochlear implants.

There are some people who do not believe in tampering with what they were born with, but we didnt agree, he said. Our faith has been strengthened by raising our daughters. Our church, West Asheville Baptist, means everything to us. The girls are very much involved in church activities. We have learned that whatever is needed, God provides for it. He has placed people in our lives to help meet our needs. There is always a right person in our lives at the right time.

Kristen is a competitive gymnast and she hopes to become involved in sports in high school. She ended her eighth grade year on the honor roll. Jessie plays community basketball and is taking violin lessons. They both are actively involved in church and participate in plays.

Now the Griffins are faced with having another cochlear implant performed on Jessies ear that was not included in the first surgery.

When she had implant surgery seven years ago, the procedure was done only on one ear, Renee said. Today, both ears can be done during one surgery. Again the problem with insurance arises. It will only pay for two implants if they are done during one surgery. There is less than a five percent chance that insurance will help with Jessies second surgery. Even if the company chooses to help us, we have been told to expect at least a years wait while the company considers paying. At this time we are looking at a medical bill of over $44,000 out-of-pocket. Needless to say, we do not have this amount of money.

The Griffins have set up a fund through the N.C.State Employees Credit Union to help with the girls medical expenses. The account number is 2270839 for anyone who wishes to contribute.

The cochlear implant is priceless, Renee said. Those considering this should realize that surgery is just the start, then comes a lot of therapy and rehabilitation. Those that are non-verbal like Jessie was have to start the speech process as an infant babbling and develop speech. They dont just wake up from surgery and can hear and that is all there is to it.

Copyright © 2004 Black Mountain News