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December 30, 2005

A gift heard loud and clear

From: Newsday, NY - Dec 30, 2005

LI family grateful for a philanthropist's $1-million donation of cochlear implants for underinsured children


December 30, 2005

For Adriana Figlia, 4, the big moment came when she held up her drawing before a battery of cameras. Her signed crayon rendition of mountains, a tree and a big heart was a thank you to the philanthropist who had given her the gift of hearing.

The Bayport girl, diagnosed in infancy as profoundly deaf, received a cochlear implant on Dec. 15 that should vastly improve her ability to hear.

Adriana was born seven weeks premature and has been in therapy since she was 6 months old, said her father, Denis Figlia, 50. She was getting less benefit from her hearing aids, he added.

Figlia, who manages a small shipping and packing store in West Islip, said he didn't have insurance because "it's such a small one-man operation" and he would not have been able to afford the procedure.

The implant costs $28,000 to $30,000, and surgical and therapy costs bring the tab close to $100,000, said Dr. Andrea Vambutas, who performed Adriana's surgery and serves as medical director for cochlear implants at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.

Most insurance companies cover the procedure, but the Figlias might have had to wait four or five years, Vambutas said.

But thanks to a $1 million gift to the medical center from the late philanthropist Horace Hagedorn, the device will become available to families who couldn't otherwise afford such procedures, said Michael Dowling, executive director of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System at yesterday's news conference.

Amy Hagedorn of Port Washington said her husband, who had a severe hearing loss in his later years, considered the implant for himself. Though he was not a candidate for the device, "He said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could make hearing possible for deaf children whose families are poor or underinsured?'" she said.

Horace Hagedorn, founder of Miracle-Gro garden products, became so enthusiastic about the process that he commissioned a documentary about the cochlear implant. Hagedorn, 89, died in January during the making of the film. The film, "The Bridge Between Sound and Silence," was completed by producer Ron Rudaitis.

"Horace came to every shooting, even getting scrubbed to go into the operating room," said Lynn Spivak, director of the hospital's Hearing and Speech Center. She said the center has performed 62 such procedures since 2001, on people from age 1 to their 70s. She said the technology has vastly improved from the bulky device introduced in the late '80s.

Spivak said the device works through a computer chip in the external part behind the ear, which processes and codes sounds. The coded messages are transmitted to the implant in the inner ear, where tiny electrodes stimulate the nerve endings.

At yesterday's ceremony, Adriana's father, Denis, gave Amy Hagedorn an angel statuette with a card thanking her for "giving my daughter a gift which I could not."

Adriana will have her device "switched on" at the center in mid-January, when the external installation is completed, Spivak said. She will need continuous therapy and reprogramming, but the tiny external device will be hidden by her long, curly hair.

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.