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
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