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July 24, 2004

Vidalia gardener hears for first time

From: Natchez Democrat, MS - Jul 24, 2004

By Joan Gandy
The Natchez Democrat

Birds, raindrops, wind in the trees -- all new sounds for Andy Shulla, 45, as he listens and learns after a successful cochlear implant six months ago. He hears the motor in the small black truck he drives around Concordia and other nearby parishes, where many know him for his sunny disposition and his passion for flowers and plants.

He hears a mosquito buzzing, a dog barking and, as he demonstrated by running his fingers across the jeans he wore -- "I hear this," he said, his pleasant, angular face brightening with a wide smile as he spoke and listened to the sound.

Shulla suffered meningitis as a child of 1 to 2 years old. The disease or perhaps the medicines used to treat it caused him over time to lose his hearing, said Dr. John White, who heads the head and neck clinic at Riverpark Medical Center in Vidalia.

"He first came to see me in September 2003," White said. "He had been wearing a hearing aid for a number of years but it was not working well. He was at the point that he couldn't hear over the telephone with it."

White believed Shulla might benefit from the implant because he knew the language and could communicate, albeit with difficulty and not always clearly. Further, Shulla possessed the most important quality -- motivation, White said.

Peggy Rutledge of Jonesville recalled teaching Shulla words when he was a teenager and was not communicating very well. Rutledge and her parents, Clifton and Badglee Harris, also of Jonesville, have been Shulla's close friends and nurturers since he was a young boy. "I wouldn't allow him to use sign language," Rutledge said. "We'd have drills. It helped him to learn to communicate."

White called friends who were members of the Lions Club. A search to find an institution where Shulla might get the implant led to University of Mississippi Medical Center, where Dr. Jeffrey Carron performed the surgery in January.

Louise Moorhead, who has been a kind of mother to Schulla for about 10 years and lives next door to him, was on hand for the surgery in Jackson and recalls the moment when he heard the first sounds.

"You just aren't able to imagine someone who hears for the first time. He even had to get used to his own voice," Moorhead said. Some of the sounds were overwhelming, such as a loud truck that passed as they stood at the door of the hospital on the way home after the surgery.

The procedure involves threading a tiny wire with electrodes on it right through the cochlear. A transistor on the outside of the ear sends signals to the electrode array, where each tiny electrode is designed to pick up different frequencies, White said.

Years back, transplants were less sophisticated, able to pick up fewer frequencies. "Andy will be able to watch TV, listen to music. He will be able to appreciate sounds," White said.

All the while, his brain will reprogram as he learns that the strange sound he hears when the phone rings is indeed the phone. "It's very much like a stroke victim, using a different part of the brain to relearn things. Andy has done exceptionally well," White said.

For Shulla, who has heard very little since he was 11, life takes a new turn. And the lessons he must learn continue. "I thought I heard water dripping once, and it was a clock," he said. "I hear the brakes on my truck. I hear the keys jingling."

How his ability to hear will affect his passion for flowers and plants is unclear. One thing is certain, however. That passion has not diminished. And as he continues work with the audiologist and speech therapist, he may be able to share his love and knowledge of plant life with more people and in different ways.

Showing off the garden at his home outside Vidalia, he caressed his flowers, put his arms about them, spoke gently to them and pointed out which ones were ready for pruning, which ones had seed pods and would produce new plants. He spoke as a parent does of his children. "These are my babies," he said, stroking the tops of colorful coleus.

Much work lies ahead for Shulla. He continues to work with an audiologist, Kathy Irving, and a speech therapist, Lara Monico, at the Jackson medical center. The audiologist continues to adjust the mechanism that allows Shulla to hear, fine tuning it to arrive at the right balance between too soft and too loud.

Monico said the speech therapy at this point centers on how Shulla is receiving and perceiving sounds, how the implant is working for him. "We're analyzing the accuracy of responses as his brain is learning to receive sounds, some of which he probably has never heard before," she said.

As for helping him to improve his speech so that it conforms with the normal, that will take time but can be accomplished. "His speech is based on inadequate sounds he was receiving," Monico said. "Once he is getting those correct sounds, we can begin to refine his speech. Some of that he will correct on his own over time as his listening skills improve."

Like others who have known him or worked with him, Monico finds Shulla amazing. "He was the first adult in our program. He is so serious, and he has taken ownership of this device."

Moorhead spreads the credit for Shulla's joyful success across a long list of people who have been important in his life. However, she places Dr. White high on the list because he recognized the possibilities for helping Shulla and acted on it.

"I believe there is a reason for everyone passing each other in this life. Some people didn't think he could ever hear again. That's why we think Dr. White is such a hero," Moorhead said.

© 2002 Natchez Newspapers Inc. All rights reserved.