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May 19, 2005

Awaiting the sounds of life

From: Salt Lake City Deseret News - Salt Lake City,UT,USA - May 19, 2005

Thanks to student, deaf teacher gets ear implant

By Laura Hancock
Deseret Morning News

A door slams shut, a dog barks, a baby coos and a brother laughs at the blaring TV.

All are sounds of life.

Shellee Carrick, a 29-year-old mother of two, has not heard these sounds since she was 18 months old.

She waits in silence, impatient to reacquaint herself with the noisy world.

She counts down the days to June 23, when her physician will begin to fit and adjust the external component of a cochlear implant that was embedded in her ear Wednesday at University Hospital.

In the meantime, Carrick will use her standard mode of communication — a cell phone with a keyboard and e-mail function — to chit-chat with Kristina Coleman, a senior at Pleasant Grove High School, where Carrick teaches American Sign Language.

Teacher and student are linked by a senior English project required for graduation.

But Coleman's dedication surprised Carrick's family — and even the student herself.

Coleman arranged for the Colorado Neurological Institute's Cochlear Implant Assistance Program to donate the cochlear device, valued at $55,000. The high schooler also took charge of raising $17,000 for Wednesday's implant procedure.

"I thought I'd have to pass it on to one of my junior friends" for a senior project, Coleman said. "The money was raised, and I have a new friend now."

Cochlear implants consist of internal and external components that electronically work together to help the deaf hear.

The internal component has electrodes in the cochlea that stimulate nerve fibers, which activate the brain to hear and make meaning of sound.

The external component is worn on the ear similarly to a hearing aid. It has microphones, volume controls and the electronic ability to digitize sound into codes. The codes are sent to a transmitter, which sends the codes to the internal component.

The cochlear implant will improve Carrick's ability to hear and communicate, but doctors do not know yet how well. It depends on many factors, such as damage in her ear and progress in speech and hearing therapy.

Coleman learned about cochlear implants while she was doing her senior project at Pleasant Grove High, a 10-page written paper and a project.

Coleman chose to research and write about deaf culture after a friend — one of Carrick's students — introduced her to deaf communication and ASL, the close-knit relationships among the deaf, and deaf pride.

"It can be harder to do a job and there's sometimes discrimination, but some jobs they can do better, like lifeguarding because they have to use their eyes," Coleman said. "They have to learn" to use other senses after they lose one sense.

Carrick was diagnosed with spinal meningitis when she was 18 months old. Almost immediately, her mother realized she could not hear.

Doctors told her to wait a month. They hypothesized it was a short-term effect of the infection.

"It was probably the longest month of my life," said Trudy Clark, Carrick's mother.

Clark couldn't wait the month. Sometime during that period, she approached her daughter's crib with pots and pans. She banged them together over the baby.

Carrick did not respond.

Clark sewed pockets in her daughter's clothes for a hearing aid, which at best made loud noises that to hearing people sound muffled. With hearing aids, Carrick has been unable to hear multiple noises at the same time.

Carrick learned to read lips and to speak. She picked up sign language in high school, as she made more deaf friends.

Also in high school, an aunt and uncle offered to pay for the implant procedure, but at the time Carrick did not want it.

"The clique she had, they were proud. It was their culture," Clark said.

Cochlear implants are usually given to children. Carrick was considered a good candidate for it because she could already speak like someone who could hear. Although she no longer remembers the time when she could hear, doctors believe her brain had undergone necessary developments before she lost 90 percent of hearing from her left ear and 100 percent from the right.

Carrick now wants to hear the voices of her son, Austen, 4, and daughter, Kylee, 1. "I belong to my family," she said.

"This would be a mother's dream," Clark said, laughing. "There are some advantages" to not being able to hear children.

Many of Carrick's friends have received cochlear implants. Carrick's insurance does not pay for the implant or procedure because it is not necessary for survival, she said.

Coleman — who spent more than 70 hours raising the money and working to secure the donation — raised money by making a list of family, friends and companies associated with Carrick and her husband.

For cash, she distributed fliers for a real estate company. She arranged a fund-raising competition among Carrick's students, with pizza to the class that donated the most money.

She searched the Internet. "I typed in 'cochlear implant assistance,' and I went through (the list). I e-mailed everyone. Not many people responded to me," Coleman said.

She had raised about $14,000 when the Colorado institute responded.

Carrick described herself Wednesday morning before the surgery as happy, nervous and grateful.

"I can't believe it's happening," she said.

Hours later, she was groggy and in pain.

Coleman greeted her with a cardstock Burger King crown. Coleman wiped tears from her eyes. "I hope she's not in too much pain," she said. "How do I look?" Carrick said.

"You look wonderful," said her father, Rod Lundgren, as husband Sam Carrick held up his cell phone and took a picture.

Sam Carrick showed her the picture.

"Oh, I look awful," Carrick said, as her family laughed.

And after next month, she may be able to hear that laugh.


© 2005 Deseret News Publishing Company