The Journey

Cochlear Implants Sending New Vibrations
By Michael Harri

William Rinehart, Sr., was a hard convert.

He couldn't hear well enough to talk on the telephone for more than 50 years, but he finally gave in and agreed to undergo cochlear implant surgery.

"After I came home, I hated all the noise. I said, 'Take me back, I want my old hearing back.' I didn't feel that way very long," said Rinehart of Sequim, Wash. "I no longer have to avoid people because of my poor hearing."

Rinehart now is able to talk to people without the fear.

"I no longer have to avoid people because of my poor hearing," Rinehart said.

Deaf and hard of hearing individuals make up the largest disability group in the United States. Nationally, over half of the 54 million with disabilities are deaf and hard of hearing.

The pressure facing families about the implant runs a wide gamut of concerns, from health concerns about the procedure itself, to facing opposition from other deaf people, reports the Eastern Washington Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

Scottie Nix had mixed emotions after his implant procedure.

"I have found that I hate to take my implant off for anything – even to go to bed. I love hearing," Scottie Nix of Renton Wash. said. "Was I miserable at first when the implant was turned on? You bet."

Cochlear implants are electronic devices with three main elements. A battery powered external speech processor converts sound waves into digital signals, which is then transmitted through a magnet from the outside of the skull to an internal implant surgically placed under the skin on the skull and linked by a wire array to the hearing nerve. The implant costs about $45,000, including the surgery.

The surgical procedure itself requires a small disc-like device to be placed above the ear and under the skin, and typically only one ear is implanted. Any residual hearing that the ear may have before the operation is overtaken by the wire leads. There may also be bouts of dizziness, a small risk of injury to the facial nerve, and the loss of taste to one side of the tongue. There is also a small risk of meningitis afterward. For Nix, it is worth the risk.

"Can I hear all normal conversations? Not today, but in the future I should be able to get most all of it," Nix said. "I can hear things I've never heard before, like people typing, phones ringing, and birds singing. It's absolutely fantastic."

Mary Fisher works with deaf and hard of hearing middle school students in Spokane, Wash. Her work, however, has shown her a bleak side of the operation.

"I can tell you that I have only seen one true success story," Fisher said. "One partial success and many, many failures."

Sometimes, Fisher has observed that students simply choose not to turn the implants on after surgery because of the steep learning curve of adjusting to the implant. Two million under the age of 18 are deaf in the United States, and only 6.3 million people who can benefit from the implants actually wear them. One deaf teenager's mother forced her son to undergo implant surgery. He simply rebelled and never turned it on. Doctors often advise that any contact with interpreters should cease in the hopes that the new implant will take the place of the interpreter.

"The one and only success story was a mother who insisted on having both the implant and the interpreter," Fisher said. "Her child was allowed to use the implant when she could and have an interpreter as backup in case she missed the information."

One common issue is the struggle to understand why someone who can't hear would not consider getting the implant to further help themselves. The answer lies in a complicated web of cultural identity in which no clear definitions are defined. A strong deaf community exists for those who wish to embrace it, but others do not. Rachel Lorenz's parents choose at early age for her to learn lip reading and attend regular school instead of sign language at a separate school.

"I was raised to function in the hearing world and have not identified myself as being a part of a culture," Lorenz said. She received her implant last year and is just starting the treatments that may open her up to the hearing world even further.

With the implant comes hopes for progressing the deaf in a hearing world.
"Deaf culture will continue to exist and adapt to the mainstream," deaf education specialist Randy Collins said. He became hard of hearing in Vietnam, has a degree in journalism, and a M.Ed. in deaf education.

Those with the implant will wear them to work to become more accessible to English, and ultimately better jobs.

"When they return home, they will become a member of the deaf community again," Wright said.