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August 10, 2004

Teenager can hear for first time following implant

From: Ocala Star-Banner, FL - Aug 10, 2004


GAINESVILLE - Travis Koenke played defensive end last year for Daytona Beach's Mainland High School state championship football team. But for the 15-year-old from Port Orange, it was a season without sound.

He couldn't hear the Buccaneer band, the shouting from the stands or the directions from his coach, Rod Smith. That's because Travis was born profoundly deaf.

Monday was the first day of preseason practice for the Buccaneers, but Travis wasn't with the team.

Instead, he was at the Speech and Hearing Center at Shands at the University of Florida. And for the first time, Travis heard his parents' voices.

On July 9, he had surgery to place a receiver/stimulator under the skin behind his right ear and to position an array of electrodes inside the cochlea, a snail-shaped part of his inner ear.

Those are the internal components of the cochlear implant, a complex electronic device that can help provide a sense of sound to some people who, like Travis, are profoundly deaf.

Travis is one of more that 13,000 adults and 10,000 children who have received the implants in the United States.

The electrodes in his inner ear can transmit electrical impulses to the brain, where he will learn to recognize them as sounds. It isn't what most of us think of as "normal" hearing.

"Some people have described it as more like hearing the voice of Darth Vader, or even Donald Duck," said audiologist Katherine Gray.

But for Travis and his parents, Warren and Robin Koenke, it was nothing short of a miracle when Gray began to program the speech processor.

Gray is an audiologist in the department of communicative disorders of the College of Public Health and Health Professions. Programming a series of beeps of varying pitch and loudness into the computer, she stimulated the electrodes in the cochlea, setting appropriate levels for each, from soft to comfortably loud.

Finally, at a signal from Gray, Warren Koenke leaned forward and spoke.

"Can you hear me, son?" he asked. Travis responded with an ear-to-ear grin and a big thumbs-up. His parents broke into quiet tears.

He listened as each person in the crowded room spoke up and said their name, including two tutors and two members of the Daytona Beach Rotary West.

Laughter broke out as Travis tried to negotiate the pronunciation of Rotarian Eugene Boleslawski's last name, finally settling on "Gene."

The Rotary Club has adopted Travis as a project, and has made the expensive implant surgery possible for the family.

"I'd heard of the Make a Wish Foundation for children, but Rotary stepped in like they were 'Make a Wish' for parents," Robin Koenke said.

The Koenkes said they met with surgeon Patrick Antonelli to discuss the promise and limitations of the implant last September, but the ultimate decision was left to Travis.

His mother said, "He was like 'sure, I'm ready! Bring it on!"'

She describes her son as someone who is always hungry to get more out of life. She also spoke of her trepidation in letting him try out for football.

"I was afraid it would be something else he wouldn't be able to do, as a deaf child."

Instead, she said, it has given him self-confidence and a sense of being part of a team.

"We asked him what was the first thing he wanted to hear, and he said his daddy's voice," Robin Koenke said. "The second was Coach Smith's. I figure he'll say 'Mama' when he's ready."

Travis will return to Shands for more adjustments today, and for regular visits hereafter.

Each time he comes in, Gray said, Travis will be able to hear more sounds and want the volume on his processor set higher.

His mother sees a whole new world ahead for her son.

"When somebody handed him that cellphone today, I thought, 'Oh no. Now it's going to be CDs and cellphones and cars - all those teen-age things I didn't have to worry about.'"

© 2004 Ocala Star-Banner