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Children's Health

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When a Child Can't Hear


All was going well until Erica turned 3, when for some unknown reason, the hearing aids stopped helping her hear. The family decided to try a different approach -- a cochlear implant.

While hearing aids are placed in the outer ear to magnify incoming sounds, a cochlear implant is surgically installed within the inner ear, says Karl White, PhD, director of the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management at Utah State University. A receiver is placed on the outside of the head to transmit sound signals directly to the implant, which in turn stimulates the auditory nerve, sending sounds straight to the brain.

The procedure, which is irreversible and somewhat risky, is normally considered only after hearing aids have failed. That's because the child's damaged cochlea -- the nautilus shell-shaped part of the inner ear that normally directs sound energy to the auditory nerve -- is destroyed in the implantation process, eliminating the possibility of returning to hearing aids if the procedure isn't a success. Still, complete implant failure is rare, and the results can be astounding. After receiving her implant at 3-1/2 years old, Erica could hear again. "I understand how they work, but to me it's still just a miracle," says King.

However, the surgery and the implant are very expensive, usually costing between $50,000 and $70,000. Almost a year later, the Kings are still fighting with their insurance company to pay for the procedure; many insurance plans don't cover the implants.

King's second daughter, Jaime, was tested for hearing problems at birth, and as is common in households with one hearing-impaired child, their second child also had profoundly impaired hearing. The family chose to wait until she was 4 months old to fit her for a hearing aid. Erica is now 4 and Jaime almost 2, and both children are speaking at levels above their age group. However, King has recently learned that the hearing aids are no longer helping Jaime, and she too will likely need a cochlear implant.

"When a child is born, you want everything to be perfect for them. But when you realize they are deaf, part of your hopes for that child die," says King. However, as King found, with today's advances in hearing technology, dreams don't have to die. "The treatments that are available today are so effective that people can have almost normal speech if the problem is caught early."

Will Wade, a San Francisco-based writer, has a 5-year-old daughter and was the co-founder of a monthly parenting magazine. His work has appeared in POV magazine, The San Francisco Examiner, and Salon.

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