The sound of…sound
Cochlear implants give local family new ears
By Rebecca Burton
Leigh Boan, a histotechnologist at the Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center, remembers the first day she switched from traditional hearing aids to cochlear implants. Although she was nervous about the surgery, the technology held promise to open up a new world of sounds.
The day before her 18th birthday, Boan underwent surgery at UF Health to have the device implanted behind her ear.
Cochlear implants work differently than traditional hearing aids — which simply amplify acoustic sounds — by converting the acoustic sound to an electronic signal that creates impulses to stimulate the damaged ear.
Forty-two stitches and six weeks of healing time later, Boan was “turned on” for the first time, meaning her device was ready to be tested by audiologists in the College of Public Health and Health Professions’ UF Health Speech & Audiology Center. At first, Boan described the sounds she heard as robotic, a series of beeps and pings. But, after a couple of adjustments, Boan said she heard a strange sound while she was at her parents’ house in Georgia.
“It was pretty unbelievable. I kept saying ‘What’s this?’ and ‘What’s that sound? What’s that sound?’” Boan said. “I heard rain on the roof and asked what the noise was. I had never heard it before.”
Boan also said music had a new meaning. Before, she could understand bits of the beats and rhythm, but now she could understand the lyrics. Since her implant has a slot for an auxiliary cord, she can connect it to her iPhone to call people or listen to music.
“It’s like a surround sound in your head,” Boan said.
Audiologists with the UF department of speech, language, and hearing sciences specialize in seeing patients like Boan. They run tests, make adjustments and help with speech therapy to make sure the transition is smooth. Melissa Hall, AuD., Stephanie Partin, Au.D. and Rhiannon Pitkin, Au.D., have recently become certified Children’s Medical Service Providers for the state of Florida.
Being certified ensures that they are the top professionals in the field and allows them to treat eligible children with special health care needs.
“It really is security for the patient to know that we know what we’re talking about and that we have appropriate tests to properly diagnose patients with hearing problems,” Pitkin said. “It’s peace of mind for the patient and great for the department because it gets people in. It’s fantastic for us as professionals because they know that we’re knowledgeable, trusted and professional.”
Boan moved with her husband, Paul, and 4-year-old son, Hudson, who are both deaf, from Georgia to Gainesville three years ago. Because of her experience at UF Health, Boan wanted her son to get the care she received, and she started the process of getting Hudson qualified for cochlear implants after he was diagnosed at age 1.
He has had them for more than a year now and the preschooler who previously never spoke is now the most outgoing patient Hall has seen. He attends speech therapy weekly, and the visible device he wears on his ear is the only clue that he has a hearing impairment.
Boan said Hudson had trouble at first, and would constantly rip off the outer portion of the device. He even buried one in the sand. But after working with the UF audiologists, he started to get used to the sounds.
“Now he’s asks ‘Where’s my ear?’” Boan joked.
The implants can be placed in children as young as 12 months old, as approved by the FDA, but in extenuating circumstances they may be implanted at a younger age, Pitkin said. She said the quicker the hearing loss is treated, the better off the child is developmentally, socially and academically.
“Now, with newborn hearing screening we’re able to identify hearing loss at a younger age and provide management and intervention a lot earlier to help them maintain a level of progress that’s on par with their peers,” Pitkin said. “That way they don’t fall behind and they have the same amount of opportunities available to them that other people do.”
Boan’s husband, Paul, was previously against cochlear implants, because he used to think being deaf was part of who he was and didn’t want to change it. But after seeing the improvements in his son and wife he has decided to start the process to obtain his “new ears” as well.
Audiologists and speech-language pathologists in the college’s department of speech, language, and hearing sciences have treated hundreds of patients since UF was part of the clinical trials for multi-channel cochlear implants in 1984. The multi-channel implant provides a much more detailed representation of incoming sound over the previous singlechannel device that was first implanted in a patient in 1972, said Alice Holmes, Ph.D., a professor of speech, language, and hearing sciences, and a member of the 1984 clinical trial team.
“The amazing thing about cochlear implants is that the brain can take limited information and learn to use it,” Holmes said. “Over the years implants have improved so dramatically, but even in those early cases the implant was a miracle to people. Our first patient was a schoolteacher who was able to go back to teaching after the implant, and she actually was named the teacher of the year in her county.”
But just as cochlear implants can be viewed as life-improving technology, the devices have also drawn controversy. To some in the deaf community, deafness is a cultural identity, not a disability that needs to be treated.
Holmes, who remembers walking through a line of protesters to attend a cochlear implant meeting in 2002, believes the opposition to cochlear implants has lessened as our understanding of who receives the greatest benefit from implants — such as young children and adults who previously had normal hearing — has increased.
“There’s still some controversy, without a doubt, and you have extremists on both ends: people who say every child should be implanted and people who say nobody should get implants, but there’s middle ground there,” Holmes said. “Implantation is a personal choice that individuals and families need to make.”