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Michelle StearnsMichelle

Like most toddlers, Michelle didn’t always listen to her parents. Unlike most toddlers, however, Michelle didn’t listen because she couldn't: She was slowly losing her hearing.

Suspecting a problem, her parents took her for a hearing test. Unfortunately, the results didn’t give a firm answer - in fact, Michelle’s parents were told she might just have a behavior problem. But a second series of tests, this time conducted by two audiologists, revealed that she indeed had a moderate level of hearing loss.

“Looking back, I now know that Michelle was so bright, that she had developed coping skills that fooled the first audiologist,” says Michelle’s mom Carola. “After we got the results from the second series of tests back, we felt tremendous guilt” for not catching the problem earlier.

“When I told her teacher at daycare, she said that the diagnosis made sense. When the other kids wanted Michelle’s attention, they would touch her on her shoulders.” Her intelligence may have masked her progressive hearing loss. Carola explains, “Michelle was so motivated to communicate that she taught herself to lip read. We think she may have lost significant hearing at three and just coped.”

Michelle was four-and-a-half when she was fitted for her first hearing aids, and seemed to be doing fine.

But six months later, she completely lost her hearing almost overnight.

A Second Chance at Hearing

Desperate to restore their young daughter’s hearing, Michelle’s family turned to the University of Michigan’s renowned Child Hearing Program. They learned that U-M was testing a new kind of device that might help her.

After talking with the U-M team, they agreed to let her take part in the clinical trial of the device, an improved form of a technology called a cochlear implant.

“Michelle had such a strong desire to communicate, we wanted to do anything we could to help her,” says Carola. “The particular device was not quite through FDA approval at the time, but we trusted the surgeons and audiologists who worked as a team on her case.”

The U-M Cochlear Implant Program is one of the oldest, largest and most experienced in the world, with more than 1,000 “alumni” who have regained hearing with the team’s help. U-M cochlear implant patients often have the opportunity to take part in clinical trials of new devices that use the most up-to-date technology.

A cochlear implant is very different from a hearing aid. Instead of simply amplifying sound, it creates signals that the brain interprets as sound, making it ideal for people who have little or no hearing.

Cochlear implants use a device called an external speech processor, worn outside the ear, to capture sound and convert the sound into digital signals. Those signals are then sent to a surgically implanted electronic receiver inside the head, which tells the implant to stimulate the electrodes inside the cochlea (inner ear). The brain then recognizes these signals as sound.

The cochlear implant doesn’t give Michelle ”normal” hearing. But she hears well enough to take piano lessons, listen to music, and even distinguish the songs of different types of birds.

Michelle was a great candidate for an implant because she had an incredibly strong will to hear again, and because her hearing loss was progressive. That meant that before her hearing started to wane, she had already begun to learn language and speech during the peak time for the development of those skills, around 1 to 2 years of age.

Before she received the cochlear implant, Michelle’s language development had slowed considerably, putting her a year and a half behind other kids her age in her language skills. After getting her implant, her progress exceeded the U-M team’s expectations. In just six months, she achieved goals that they had hoped she might reach in a year. The frustrations that had plagued Michelle because she had trouble communicating quickly became a distant memory.

“I can’t express what a difference it made in her life, our lives,” Carola marvels. “Her speech is perfect. In fact, she is taking French in school now, and has an excellent accent. She is a confident, social, and happy 13-year-old who talks on the phone frequently.”

As a matter of fact, the girl who once completely lost her hearing almost doesn’t think of her condition at all.

As Michelle herself puts it, “I never knew I had hearing loss until my mom told me.”

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