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When a Child Can't Hear

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July 24, 2000 -- At 8 months old, Angie King's daughter Erica didn't babble like other children her age. Instead of gentle gurgles and cooing sounds, Erica made high-pitched squealing noises. King's husband Mark suspected a hearing disorder, but Angie was reluctant to consider the possibility.

There were other clues as well. Erica didn't react when a dog suddenly began to bark nearby. She would dance along with television programs, but wouldn't imitate their sounds. After conducting her own in-home hearing test by dropping pots and pans on the floor -- with little response -- the Celina, Ohio, mother scheduled an appointment with her pediatrician who referred the family to an audiologist. Soon the results were in. Erica was profoundly impaired in both ears.

The way the Kings' story unfolded is not unique. In fact, they discovered their child's hearing loss just as other parents of hearing-impaired children do: by realizing that their child hadn't started to talk or respond to sounds. By that time, months of critical language development have been lost, possibly for a lifetime. But if Angie, now president of Hear US, a national advocacy group pushing for coverage of hearing testing and treatment by insurance companies, has her way, her daughter Erica's story will soon be the exception, not the norm.

Words started to come quickly after Erica was fitted for her first hearing aids at 11 months. "The results were amazing," says King. "Within six weeks, she had learned six words."

The hearing aid alone didn't loosen her tongue -- it took a lot of hard work by both mother and daughter. Having been deprived of auditory input for her first year, Erica had to get used to having a completely new sense.

At the advice of a speech specialist, King spent entire days on the floor with Erica, playing with flash cards, making up word games, trying anything she could think of to engage the girl's ears and trigger vocal responses. Each week, she posted a list of target words on the refrigerator, and both parents tried to use them as often as possible. Within a year of receiving her hearing aids, Erica was speaking at the same level as other kids her age.

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.

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