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Devils Lake Boy Hears for First Time

Date:  September 11th, 2014

Contact/Phone:  Mary Muhlbradt
Phone: (701)857-5116
Fax: (701)857-5683

e-mail:   Mary Muhlbradt

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One-year-old cochlear implant recipient Blake Zimmerman sits on his father's lap, his attention focused on a colorful toy.

Trinity Health Audiologists Jerrica Maxson, AuD, and Tricia Nechodom, AuD, begin stimulating Blake's auditory nerve through the implant, starting with soft beeps that gradually grow louder.

Finally Blake's expression says it all. He's hearing sound through his implantfor the first time.

“I've been working with pediatric cochlear patients for almost eight years,” Maxson said. “It's really become my favorite part of my job. To restore a child's hearing and watch the parents react — there's nothing like it. I get emotional every single time.”

Blake, the son of Andrew and Jessica Zimmerman of Devils Lake, was diagnosed with bilateral profound hearing loss last year after a newborn screening indicated a substantial hearing deficit. They already had a son with cochlear implants so they decided to fit Blake with them as well. But they'd have to wait until after his first birthday to receive insurance coverage.

“We fitted his hearing aids right after his diagnosis, and we saw him every three to six months to optimize his hearing aids while he waited to get approval for cochlear implant surgery,” Maxson said.

Cochlear implants are a treatment option for children and adults with severe to profound hearing loss that limits them from obtaining sufficient benefit from hearing aids.

“The cochlear implant has two components,” Maxson explained. “There is a surgically implanted
internal electrode array and a speech processor unit that is worn on the ear. The speech processor has a
microphone that collects the sound in the environment, codes it, and sends the coded information to the internally implanted device. The internal device then takes the coded information and activates the appropriate electrodes. The electrical current coming from the electrodes stimulates the auditory nerve, which then sends the information to the brain for processing of the sound.”

Blake underwent surgery with Dr. Joshua Yorgason at Sanford Health in Bismarck in late July to implant the internal electrode array at each ear in what happened to be the first cochlear implant surgery performed in North Dakota. On August 29th he was ready to receive his external speech processors and have his bilateral cochlear implants activated.

“The activation of a cochlear implant has to be performed by an audiologist,” Maxson noted. “We
stimulate the hearing nerve one electrode at a time to determine how much current is needed on each electrode to provide stimulation to the hearing nerve. Then a program is created where all of the electrodes are on, providing the patient the ability to hear sound. For many children born with severe to
profound hearing loss, it is a very memorable day because it is the first time they will truly hear the voices of their loved ones.”

There is a debate among members of the Deaf community whether cochlear implants are a godsend or curse. People for whom deafness is part of their cultural identity may resent the notion that people with hearing loss feel the need to be “fixed.”

“About 90 percent of babies with significant hearing loss are born to hearing parents, so having the option of cochlear implants for families who choose that avenue is really wonderful,” Maxson said.

Since Blake's brain had never experienced this kind of sound, she notes it will take time for him to learn to understand what he is hearing and make sense of it. “The next year will be pretty intense for the family as they continue to receive early intervention services to facilitate his auditory, speech, and language development. He'll also return to us for re-programming of his implant about five times in the first three months and then every three to six months for a couple of years,” Maxson said.

Eventually Blake may even look back at the photos and video recordings marking the first time he heard beeps, clapping, music, and yes — his mom and dad's voices.

For more information about cochlear implants, call Trinity's Audiology Department at (701) 857-5986 SPACE index.php