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November 12, 2005

Teen proves hearing implants really do work

From: Salt Lake Tribune, United States - Nov 12, 2005

Family shares its experience with surgical procedure

By Kirsten Stewart
The Salt Lake Tribune

It's hard for Kellie McCleery, 18, to describe how it felt to re-enter the world of sound.

But 11 years ago, when doctors fired up the cochlear implant they had surgically placed under the skin behind her ear and neurons that lay dormant were called back into action, her world forever changed.

"I could hear the toilet flush, telephone ring, birds chirping," recalls McCleery.

Before that day, McCleery was so profoundly deaf that, even with a hearing aid, she couldn't hear her mother yell her name from three feet away. When she was 7, her speech was virtually unintelligible. Today, she has full command of the English language, holds down a regular job, is a straight-A student at Taylorsville High School and looks forward to college - accomplishments that her mother, Wendy, once "didn't dare hope for."

Kellie shared her triumphs, and trials, Saturday at a conference organized by Utah's Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. It was a day of vindication for the family; some of the people who warned the McCleerys against the implant were present to hear Kellie give her talk.

The event also was a source of comfort for parents like Kari Pugh, who has been criticized for deciding on an implant for her 5-year-old son.

"People said things like, 'He's deaf. That's the way God sent him here,' " said Pugh of remarks made by parents who chose not to mainstream their deaf children. "I just want encouragement that I'm doing the right thing."

Cochlear implants have been available for decades. But 11 years ago when the McCleerys started investigating the technology, it was still considered experimental, said Kellie's father, David.

"We had to fly to California to have the procedure done," he said.

Today, the surgery is widely available and almost 60,000 children and adults worldwide have the implants, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.

But some families still struggle to persuade insurance companies to pick up the tab, an estimated $60,000 to implant and train patients, according to the institute.

Also, the technology sets its deaf users apart from those who prefer hearing aids, or no aids, without offering the promise of hearing as well as everyone else.

An implant doesn't amplify sound like a hearing aid, nor does it restore hearing. Instead, the small electronic device provides its users a sense of sound by acting like a functioning ear, converting sound waves into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain.

The earlier the device is implanted, the better.

"Hearing loss is not about the ear; it's about the brain," said Carol Flexer, a professor of audiology at the University of Akron, who also spoke at Saturday's conference.

In the absence of sound, the brain reorganizes itself to receive input from other senses, primarily vision, said Flexer. "Early implantation stimulates a brain that has not been reorganized and will therefore be more receptive to auditory input."

The benefit of implants is that they make speech and everyday acts like talking on the phone possible.

But this leads to difficult decisions about whether to learn sign language or enter mainstream public school.

Kellie wasn't always deaf. She lost her hearing at 14 months of age after a bout with meningitis. But she didn't get her implant until she was 7 and didn't transition to public school until she was 8.

"Her teachers were dead-set against it," said Wendy. "One pulled me aside and said, 'You are setting her up to fail. How are you going to feel when down the road, she can't accomplish anything?' "

Kellie said making the switch wasn't easy.

She had to have special speakers installed in the classroom and sit up front where she could read her teacher's lips. The teacher sometimes spoke too rapidly and turned her back on the class, making it necessary for Kellie to arrange for carbon copies of other students' notes.

"It took me about a year to fit in," said Kellie.

Kellie's speech is still imperfect and she will probably always have to work with a speech therapist.

"A lot of times people ask me where I'm from. I tell them Taylorsville," she deadpans.

But her mother, Wendy, says, "She drives her own car, has a job, goes to the bank on her own. She's independent. That's what we were striving for."

© Copyright 2005, The Salt Lake Tribune.