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July 8, 2004

Surgeon hears sound of success from child

From: Johnson County Sun, KS - Jul 8, 2004

By:Nathan Dayani, Sun Staff Writer

Melanie O'Donohue jokes that her 7-year-old son, Ryan, is "gabby." But make no mistake, she is quite proud of her son's ability to answer telephone calls and yell "Mom" at their Lenexa home.

Ryan received a cochlear implant in his right ear shortly after doctors determined that he was profoundly deaf in both ears at the age of 18 months. On Thursday, five years to the day after he received the implant, Ryan visited Dr. Charles Luetje, who performed the boy's surgery, at the Midwest Ear Institute, 4200 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, Mo. There, Ryan read aloud three of his favorite books: "I Want a Pet," "In the Pond" and "Dear Zoo."

"I remember the day when I found out that Ryan was deaf," his mother said. "My first thought was I'd never be able to talk to him. My second thought was I'd never be able to hear him read, and I'm a teacher, so that was important to me."

Since 1980, doctors working with the ear institute have performed about 460 cochlear implant surgeries at nearby hospitals. Institute officials estimate that more than 500,000 implant surgeries have been performed worldwide since the technology was first made available in the late 1970s.

A cochlear implant is an electronic device that connects to external hardware. Using a microphone, the hardware picks up sound and relays it, through radio signals, to the implant. The implant then bypasses the non-functioning parts of the ear and directly stimulates the auditory nerve, providing partial hearing to a person who is totally deaf.

"You can restore hearing with the implant, but you don't restore any anatomical structures," Luetje said.

Thus, Ryan and others with implants would lose their ability to hear if they were to disconnect their hardware. Because of this, Ryan has been limited in his ability to play contact sports, Melanie O'Donohue said, and he has to take extra precautions when playing on slides and other structures during recess.

"There are frustrating things we have to endure from a parent's point of view," she said. "But they're not as frustrating as not being able to talk to him."

Despite the obvious challenges that Ryan has faced, his youth at the time of the implant has given him an important advantage, Luetje said. He said young children learn how to listen and talk more naturally than people who don't receive an implant until they are older.

"I think by age 7 or 8, if a child has grown up learning to read lips, use sign language and is not involved actively in trying to appreciate hearing, then they begin to lose the cognitive desire to learn it," Luetje said. "If a 15-year-old has been taught primarily by sign language, then they do very poorly with a cochlear implant unless they're highly motivated."

O'Donohue said her son has come a long way since he first received his implant; he spent three years in therapy to learn how to talk and listen, and he had to work hard to develop his language skills in order to catch up with his peers, she said.

"I never accepted that he wouldn't be able to do a lot of things," O'Donohue said. "I always thought Ryan could do whatever he wanted to do."

While completing his therapy, Ryan began attending kindergarten at Rising Star Elementary School in Lenexa, and he differs little from his peers, for he needs specialized instruction only in speech and reading.

In February, Ryan read a book aloud to his mother for the first time, which naturally made her break down and cry.

"I had been very doubtful that would ever happen, ..." O'Donohue said. "I think every parent wants to hear their kid's voice and hear them tell you that they love you."

The moment also provided the 7-year-old with a sense of empowerment.

"When you lose your sense of hearing, you lose your identity because you can't hear your own voice. You can't identify with people. You can see them, but you can't appreciate what's going on," Luetje said. "Now look at Ryan. He's caught up; he's in regular school."

Sporting blue jeans, a red shirt and the latest in Spiderman sandals, Ryan articulately read for his doctor and answered his questions without needing to read lips. Ryan, who is a blue belt in karate with an interest in playing the trombone or guitar, can do anything he wants, his mother said.

"I'm very proud of Ryan," she said, "he's overcome so many things."

©The Johnson County Sun 2004