Plain Dealer, The (Cleveland, OH)
October 27, 1997
Kristina Graham, 3 1/2, finally listens- actually listens - to her mother.

"Kristina hears me calling her from downstairs when she's upstairs in her room playing," said Graham, of Hudson. "We used to have to be in the same room to communicate.

"She can even hear when I whisper `I love you' in her ear,' said Graham, happily.

Two months ago, Kristina had a cochlear implant in one ear - a flexible plastic 2-inch electrode inserted in the cochlea, which is the snail-shell-shaped organ in the inner ear that transforms sound vibrations into nerve impulses for transmission to the brain. The electrode, which curls into the snail-like shape of the cochlea, is connected to a receiver implanted in the bone behind the ear.

The cochlear implant, introduced in 1985, was approved in July for use in children 18 months through 17 years of age. The technology will have a profound impact on the ability of deaf children under age 2 to learn to speak without any impediments, said Dr. Franklin Rizer, the neurotologist at the Warren (Ohio) Otologic Group, where Kristina's surgery was performed.

The only obvious sign of her implant is a thin wire hanging down the back of her neck, attached to her head by a magnet that grips an implanted receiver, and connected to a black box the size of a deck of cards, clipped to her belt.

The black box serves as the speech processor for those sounds being transmitted to the inner ear. All of this happens in microseconds so Kristina can detect and process sounds as they occur. As technology improves, the black box could eventually be replaced by a speech processor that fits securely behind the ear. And Advanced Bionics, maker of the Clarion Implant, said a totally implantable device will be available by 2001.

The implant can cost as much as $40,000 per ear, a portion of which may be covered by insurance. A good pair of hearing aids can cost around $2,600 - with no help from insurance.

Not a cure

The implant is not, however, a "cure" for deafness, said Rizer. "If a parent is expecting a child to be a normal `hearing' child after their implant, they are going to be greatly disappointed.'

After surgery, he said, "there is a lot of hard work - mostly with speech therapy and learning how to listen - to be able to teach a child to learn to process what the device is helping the inner ear to hear."

Graham has already noticed a huge improvement in her daughter's ability to speak in fuller and longer sentences, adding more consonant patterns like "sh" to "shell," and "s" to "snake." The "sh" and "s" sounds are normally impossible for a profoundly deaf person to decipher because both are said at a higher frequency in patterned speech.

Not everyone views cochlear implants in a positive light.

"It is a waste of time to fix deaf kids to become hearing," said profoundly deaf Mary Anne Jividen, chairwoman of the Deaf Advisory Committee at the Cleveland Community Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, using a TTY (text telephone for the deaf) to communicate.

"The professionals and the parents should let them be who God made them to be - deaf. If I happened to become hearing by some miracle, I would pop both of my ears to be deaf again," said Jividen, 50. "I love being who I am, and I'm very proud of it."

The National Association of the Deaf, an organization dedicated to the promotion of American Sign Language, blasts "uninformed hearing parents for subjecting their defenseless deaf children to the experimental, invasive surgery that entails tissue destruction, and possible facial palsy."

Worth the risk

Stacey Lim, 18, of Stow, thinks her implant surgery four months ago was worth the risk. She was born profoundly deaf: She could hear nothing without hearing aids and, with the devices in both ears, she could pick up only bits of conversations.

An accomplished pianist, Lim can finally hear the entire spectrum of chords - both the high notes and low notes - in the pieces she plays.

"With my hearing aids, I couldn't make out all the tones. Because I can hear all of the notes now, I finally understand what all the fuss over listening to music is all about," said Lim, who now hears voices and other environmental sounds as far away as 60 feet, and recognizes speech without reading lips.

A Wooster College freshman, Lim attends class with her hearing peers, needing no interpreter or special assistance, and lives in a dorm on campus with hearing roommates.

She hopes to become a pediatric audiologist.

"My life has been really great. I've gotten to do everything my friends have done - movies, concerts, learning to play the piano, going to a regular school," said Lim.

"I'm not a deaf person. I'm a totally independent person."

PHOTOS BY: PHIL LONG / ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO 1 Kristina Graham's mother wanted her to have a cochlear implant so the 3 1/2-year-old child "could have a chance to live, work and go to school with the entire community, and not just a small group of deaf people." PHOTO 2 The electrical impulses picked up by the cochlear implant are transferred by wire to a microprocessor clipped to Kristina Graham's belt. The receiver is attached magnetically to the outside of her head.
Memo:  Keough is a local free-lance writer.
Edition:  FINAL / ALL
Page:  1E