Friday, February 09, 2001

Dustin can hear again

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        For the first time in seven months, 12-year-old Dustin Drifmeyer heard his name Thursday.

        “Dustin. Dustin. Dustin!” his father, Lonnie, repeated as they sat in an audiologist's office at Children's Hospital Medical Center.

        Dustin smiled. His father cried.

[photo] Dustin Drifmeyer is delighted when his implant is activated.
(Tony Jones photos)
| ZOOM |
        An audiologist had just activated the Erlanger boy's cochlear implant. It was the first implant at Children's using the new Nucleus 24 Contour Cochlear Implant approved by the Food and Drug Administration in October.

        The new device stimulates the ear at different frequencies, allowing Dustin to hear a full range of speech. The hope is that the implant's improved design will allow patients to hear better more quickly.

        “I feel great,” said Dustin, who now wears an ear-level speech processor on his right ear. “It's cool. I haven't heard anything in a long time.”

        Dustin was fitted with hearing aids when his family discovered he was hearing-impaired at age 2.

        At age 7, he was diagnosed with Enlarged Vestibular Aqueduct Syndrome, which caused progressive hearing loss.

[photo] Lonnie Drifmeyer videotaped Dustin's day.
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        When he became deaf in August, Dustin communicated with his family by lip reading. Some of his close friends took sign language with him. A seventh-grader at Tichenor Middle School in Erlanger, Dustin has maintained his honor roll status.

        Still, the last year has been difficult.

        “I was in denial for a long time,” said his mother, Donna. “... I was devastated.”

        “We didn't take it well because we could see (his hearing) leaving, and we couldn't do anything about it,” Mr. Drifmeyer said.

        In the past six months, Dustin became more withdrawn and spent much of his time watching closed-caption television. His speech declined to the point he'd skip or slur words.

        Dustin was a good candidate for the implant because of his short duration of deafness and the fact he had previously talked, said Dr. Daniel Choo, who performed Dustin's surgery Jan. 11. Cochlear implant surgery costs about $40,000, which is covered by the Drifmeyers' insurance.

[photo] | ZOOM |
    A cochlear implant is used to treat severe to profound hearing loss in adults and profound hearing loss in children.
    The implant is an electronic device that performs the function of the damaged or absent hair cells by providing electrical stimulation to the nerve fibers. The implant provides useful hearing and improved communication abilities to the implant user.
    Technology has evolved from a device with a single electrode (or channel) to a complex system that transmits large amounts of sound information through multiple electrodes.
    The Nucleus 24 Contour Cochlear Implant is the newest generation of cochlear implants with 22 half-banded electrodes. Its pre-curled design mirrors the shape of the cochlea, the spiral-shaped part of the inner ear containing the auditory nerve endings.
   Source: Cochlear Corporation
        “It's basically taking up where it left off,” Dr. Choo said. “The thing that's unusual about Dustin is he was able to discriminate words and speech.”

        Cochlear patients, typically, don't hear normally when the implant is activated, said audiologist Lisa Hilbert. A child who hasn't heard before may detect a sound, but may not recognize it as speech. The process can take months.

        An estimated 1.7 percent of all children nationwide have some degree of hearing loss. Of those, 0.1 percent are considered deaf. Applied to the Tristate, that would amount to more than 8,300 hearing-impaired and nearly 500 deaf children. Nationwide, about one in 10 deaf children has a cochlear implant.

        The cochlear implant doesn't restore normal hearing. The hope is Dustin will get more than half of his information from his hearing.

        When the implant was activated Thursday, words sounded cartoonish. Dustin described it as hearing “alien voices.”

        He'll hear voices more normally over the next few weeks.

        “We cried,” his mother said. “I haven't seen a smile like that in forever.”

        His father snapped his fingers.

        “Can you hear that?” he asked Dustin.

        “Yeah,” Dustin responded.

        “Yes. Yes. Yes!” Mr. Drifmeyer said, punching the air with his fist. “It's going to get even better.”

        It was a happy, but tiring, morning for Dustin. He planned to take a nap when he got home. And then?

        “I'm going to try to call some friends,” he said.

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