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May 3, 2006

Implants help deaf child hear

From: Jackson Clarion Ledger - Jackson,MS,USA - May 3, 2006

By Julie Goodman

Elijah Sullins slid into the high chair clad in a pale yellow top and blue seersucker jumpsuit that matched his bright eyes. His little pink toes dangled below.

The 13-month-old patient was more interested in scooping up the cereal puffs on his tray and shoving a toy cowboy hat into his mouth than he was in the gathering of specialists around him.

Born three months premature, Elijah suffered total hearing loss. But since the University of Mississippi Medical Center placed a cochlear implant in each ear, the boy has been reveling in a new world of sound.

"It was amazing. I had a video camera and had to put it down. I just started crying," said his father, Trey Sullins, recalling how his son reacted when the devices were turned on Monday evening.

"It was just amazing because that was the first time in 13 months that I called his name, and he looked at me."

The child's mother, Kristi Sullins, said her son took in the chaos around him.

"Really, he was kind of overwhelmed at the madness of our house. I think that's the big thing. He cried when it was first turned on; he was startled," she said.

Elijah became the first patient in Mississippi to receive the implants in both ears at the same time, a move UMC hopes will set a new standard of care for those in the state with profound hearing loss.

"We don't want to do this indiscriminately, and we're not going to look at every patient and say, 'Oh yeah, let's do two.' But in the appropriate ones, like Elijah, we need to make the argument that if it will serve him better, give him a better chance at a normal life, it's a great investment for the state," said his physician, Dr. Jeff Carron, who specializes in pediatric otology, or the treatment of the ear and its disorders.

Insurance companies are less enthusiastic about the implants, and the family may still face questions about whether two devices are medically necessary, said Carron, who estimated the cost of Elijah's implants and surgery at $30,000.

But Carron said bringing deaf people into the world of hearing saves other costs in the long run, including lost wages, special educational services and treatment for emotional problems such as isolation.

"It's a state hospital, even if the state takes a loss on the surgery, they're making a tremendous investment in this person's future because the lifetime societal costs of profound deafness are over $1 million per person," he said.

The internal part of the device - inserted under the scalp - includes an electrode array which goes into the inner ear, bypassing the damaged area and stimulating nerves directly to send impulses to the brain. An external processor takes sound and changes it into coded signals, which are transmitted through the implant to the hearing nerve.

Elijah will continue to receive therapy through UMC and the Magnolia Speech School in Jackson, as his brain is still learning how to receive sounds.

On Tuesday, he sat in a high chair at the Jackson Medical Mall so Carron, pediatric audiologist Kathy Irving and others could adjust the intensity on his devices.

At times, he did not respond to noises, including a ringing bell - an indication that, while Elijah may be hearing sounds, he is not able to identify their source. But when his father called out "Elijah!" the boy's blue eyes darted up to meet his father's.

The boy gave toothless grins between adjustments.

His parents, who live in Madison, hope the days of lost moments are gone. They recalled how they celebrated Elijah's first birthday in March.

"He ate his cake, and that was about it," Trey Sullins said. "We were so sad on his birthday, when we sang Happy Birthday, that he didn't hear it."

©2006 The Clarion-Ledger