Implant allows toddler to hear for first time Medicine: A hearing impaired girl can sing, talk and listen with the aid of a controversial electronic device.

March 08, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

For Becca Meyers, every sound heard, every syllable spoken, seems a small miracle.

The Timonium toddler lived in silence for the first two years of her life. Her parents' conversation, her siblings' laughter -- even the wail of a fire engine -- were shut out by profound deafness.

It wasn't until a controversial electronic device was implanted deep inside her ear that she began to hear -- and then to talk, laugh and sing. Since early last year, when Becca's cochlear implant was activated, her vocabulary has grown from simple words such as "home," "up" and "off" to multisyllabic icons including "McDonald's" and "Nintendo."

"It's a miracle to us," says mother Maria Meyers. "Every day gets better and better."

Although about 8,000 children under 14 have received the implant, the surgery has triggered alarm among many in the deaf community. They say the implants are unnecessary and give parents a false sense of hope for children who always will be deaf.

Winfield McChord Jr., headmaster of the American School for Deaf in West Hartford, Conn., the nation's oldest school for the deaf, explains the deaf community's position: "They don't feel they're broken, so they don't know why people want to fix them."

Becca's parents and other proponents, however, praise the implant for allowing children to understand speech at a critical time in their development.

"I look at the implant as the best hearing aid you can give your child," Mrs. Meyers says. "How could you not do it?"

The Meyerses' journey into the deaf culture did not begin until Becca was 13 months old. Until then, Maria Meyers and her husband, Mark, did not realize their youngest child could not hear.

"She's the third baby. The thing is, everyone talks for them," Mrs. Meyers says. "Never in a million years did we dream she was profoundly deaf."

Her birth was routine, her parents say. She arrived on a chilly Sunday on Nov. 20, 1994, weighing 8 pounds 2 ounces. They christened her Rebecca Anne.

They had no idea that defective hair cells in her inner ear affected her hearing.

"She was so bright. She watched everything," Mrs. Meyers says. tell the kids to get their coats and she would crawl to her coat. She knew the routine of the house."

But Becca was slow to sit up and walk. Soon, the Meyers noticed signs that she might not be hearing normally.

She didn't look up when her parents called her. She didn't turn her head when a fire engine screamed by.

"It wasn't an instantaneous moment. But we were questioning," Mrs. Meyers says.

Finally, they took Becca to an audiologist. They were unprepared for his findings.

"He said, 'We're getting nothing. We think she's profoundly deaf,' " Mrs. Meyers recalls. "Time stopped. Everything stopped."

She remembers sobbing in the parking lot on that gray, rainy March day in 1996.

The Meyerses had no experience with deafness. There was no family history of it; in fact, 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents.

"It was a great unknown," says Mr. Meyers, 36, a sales manager for Oxford Molecular Group, a scientific software company. "What is her life going to be like?"

Stunned, the Meyerses, who were college sweethearts at Loyola College, began to explore options for Becca. Should she use sign language, lip reading, learn to speak, do all of them?

They visited the Maryland School for the Deaf's Columbia campus, searched the Web, learned sign language and met with Johns Hopkins Hospital's Dr. John Niparko, one of the nation's top cochlear-implant surgeons.

Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sounds, cochlear implants translate sound into electrical impulses piped to the inner ear through a tiny exterior microphone, a magnetic coil attached to the head and a computer processor the size of a pager. The signals, which are sent through the auditory nerve to the brain, allow a natural spectrum of sounds.

The Meyerses weighed the risks associated with the implants, including the 1 1/2 -hour surgery and possible facial-nerve side effects, and the benefits -- a child who could communicate in a hearing world.

At times, they faced strong opposition.

"People would say, 'It's invasive surgery. You don't want to do this to your baby,' " Mrs. Meyers says. "We went through a lot of pain."

The National Association of the Deaf opposes cochlear implants for children, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1990, calling the surgery "experimental" and citing the lack of long-term studies.

Still, the number of cochlear-implant surgeries is increasing by about 30 percent a year, Niparko says. Last year, 2,200 operations were performed nationwide, about half on children under 6.

The Meyerses became convinced the procedure would benefit Becca. A week after her second birthday, they took her to Hopkins for outpatient surgery, leaving home before dawn. The surgery took about an hour and a half.

"I couldn't even breathe that morning," Mrs. Meyers recalls. "I remember staring at the dome at Hopkins and thinking, 'What are we doing here?' "

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