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November 21, 2004

Breaking the silence

From: Daytona Beach News-Journal - Daytona,FL,USA - Nov 21, 2004

Teen relishes learning to speak

Staff Writer

Last update: November 21, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH -- The sound of teenagers rushing to class fills Mainland High School.

Travis Koenke moves his tall, football-player frame through the steady din of mass chatter and slamming locker doors.

But he can distinguish little. Sound remains so new.

Born deaf, 15-year-old Travis received a cochlear implant last July at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, a gift from a local Rotary Club. During the four months since surgery, his life has dramatically changed, as he adapts to the electronic device and the hearing world.

"All day last year I was bored. It was very easy for me," Travis says of his subjects, using sign language to communicate. "Now I have different classes. I feel part of the real school."

He no longer spends most of the day with one teacher and a handful of deaf students. He moves from class to class with hearing students, relying for now on sign-language interpreters to translate the day's lessons.

The result is a report card filled with A's and B's.

Travis' implant does not create normal hearing. Instead, it works much like a functioning inner ear, converting sound waves into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain.

He is learning as a teenager, with the help of speech therapists and tutors, what most children acquire almost without effort from birth.

Speaking remains a challenge, but one he relishes. Words come slowly and are difficult to understand.

"Travis never had that language. It's not like turning on a light switch," says his surgeon, Dr. Patrick Antonelli of Gainesville. "You have to be a motivated person to do what Travis is doing."

Travis is at ease, confident and comfortable with himself and his classmates. There is not a hint of insecurity.

He is the loosest in the cafeteria where he joins five or six of his teammates from the junior-varsity football team every day for lunch.

"He likes to joke about me being big and fat," 14-year-old lineman Josh Ricasolo says, laughing.

"Travis is the same guy," adds Richard Graham, 16. "But now he can talk and understand some words. He's getting there."

After lunch, the boys head out to a practice field and join others for a quick touch football game. When the bell rings, they rush back to class.

Travis blends into the crowd, just another student dressed in shorts, T-shirt and tennis shoes.

Education is a top priority for Travis. He wants to attend college, something his parents could not envision a year ago.

"Travis is flying with knowledge. You can't teach him enough," says Robin Koenke of her only child. "He knows he's going to accomplish all that he wanted in life."

Travis occupies the front seat in most of his classes, focusing on an interpreter who's translating a teacher's English or algebra lesson into sign language. He is enthusiastic, eager to learn. His long arm often shoots high in the air, offering answers to questions.

"It's a cool success story. He's a good kid," says Mike Tomlinson, who is teaching Travis computer graphics for the second year. "I think he's more happy and outgoing now. He's always been a smart kid. But he's meshing more with everyone socially."

When another student in a reading class answers a question correctly, Travis leans over, slaps the boy on the shoulder and flashes a smile that would melt an iceberg.

"What a personality," says Ella Godbee, the teacher. "The kids love him."

Nearby, a banner on a classroom wall reads: "The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is that little extra."

For Travis, they are anything but empty words.

Art MacQueen, president of the Rotary Club Daytona Beach West, says the civic group saw the untapped potential in the teenager that a cochlear implant and a regular classroom education could spark.

Medical, speech and psychological evaluations at Shands showed Travis was an excellent candidate. But cochlear-implant surgery usually is prescribed for younger deaf children, or people who lost hearing later in life.

Travis had no frame of reference for what a bird, car horn or human voice sounded like.

But the final decision rested with him. His answer was: "Sure, put it in."

The four-hour surgery took place July 9, and the device was turned on a month later. "I said, 'Hello son, I love you,' " recalls his father, Warren Koenke.

After 15 years, Travis broke his silence, uttering the words: Dad and Mom.

"He had never heard or talked. I'm still overwhelmed," his father says. "I always had dreams of us talking."

The Rotary Club already has picked up more than $45,000 in medical bills and covers the costs for trips to Gainesville for monthly checkups, while Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University provides tutoring and Easter Seals provides speech therapy after school.

"He's recognizing words so fast," MacQueen says of Travis. "It's so exciting. His capabilities are wide open. Now it's full-speed ahead."

Tom Westcott, a speech therapist at Mainland High School, works with Travis twice a week, stressing the identification and pronunciation of everyday words during the sessions.

Laughing, Travis often mimics Westcott's overuse of "ah" between words in his conversation.

"He's got a great sense of humor. He's so self-assured," Westcott says of his student. "He's doing so well. He has an excellent prognosis."

Life around Travis' house in Port Orange is much different these days.

Sound has replaced silence.

Travis taps walls, stares out at a passing lawnmower and talks out loud, making up for 15 lost years. Everything is so new.

"I wanted to hear music and my (football) coach talk. And one day be a father and hear children," he says, signing as he speaks a few words. "I wanted to change my life. And now look how I've changed."

Cochlear Implants

Q. How do cochlear implants differ from hearing aids?

Hearing aids amplify sound. Cochlear implants compensate for damaged or non-working parts of the inner ear by converting sound waves into electrical impulses and sending them to the brain.

Q. Can implant recipients hear normally?

Hearing through an implant may sound different from normal hearing, but it allows many people to communicate fully with oral communication in person and over the phone.

Q. Who gets cochlear implants?

According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration 2002 data, 59,000 worldwide have received implants.

In the United States, about 13,000 adults and nearly 10,000 children have received them. Most children who receive implants are between 2 and 6. Implants can be especially helpful to adults who have lost all or most of their hearing later in life, because they can associate the sounds made through the implant to sounds they remember.

Did You Know?

The history of hearing aid devices is an interesting one:

· In a book titled "Natural Magick," published in 1588, Giovanni Battista Porta described wooden hearing aids created in the shape of ears of animals known to have exceptional hearing.

· Ear trumpets - ranging from hollowed-out horns of animals to ones created from wood or metal - originally were used by sailors to communicate over long distances.

· Speaking tubes - flexible tubes with a funnel at one end and a small tip at the other -- conserved sound energy as sound transferred from one person to another. Speaking tubes were used by non hearing-impaired Puritan couples in the 17th century during courtship. Custom dictated that the couples sit across the table from each other, and the use of the tubes allowed them to converse privately.

· In 1902, Miller Reese Hutchinson made the first practical electrical hearing aid.

Compiled by News Researcher Karen Duffy

© 2004 News-Journal Corporation