Waiting to Hear
Two-year-old Mecaden with Todd,
Emily, and brother Levi.
Mecaden's parents learned she might be deaf less than 24 hours after she was born, when she failed a routine newborn hearing screening. More comprehensive tests three months later confirmed that she had profound hearing loss. Emily had actually seen an implant for the first time about two years earlier, when she happened to share a room at a church retreat with Allison, a 27-year-old who'd lost her hearing at 18 months and gotten an implant as a young adult. When Mecaden was diagnosed, Emily contacted Allison, who introduced them to a family whose 4-year-old had an implant. "It was so helpful for us to see another little girl growing up with it," Emily says.
Mecaden had to wait until her first birthday to have the surgery at the University of North Carolina Hospital, in Chapel Hill. After being evaluated by a team of specialists, she was first required to try hearing aids. They amplify sound, but didn't help Mecaden, whose ears weren't producing any sounds to amplify. She and her parents then started sessions with an auditory-verbal therapist. Mecaden learned to watch the adults speak and make connections between the way a word looked on their lips and what they were doing. "We were getting her ready to hear," Emily says. Having an implant involved making a serious commitment: The Bennetts had to sign a form promising to use the implant during all of Mecaden's waking hours and to continue speech-therapy sessions.
One month after her surgery, when the incision had healed, Mecaden was ready to have her implant turned on, or "activated." At first she was baffled, and she whimpered for 15 minutes. She could hear everyone's voice, the chairs scraping, and a fan blowing, but she had no idea what to make of any of it. "She'd had only four senses before that day," says Emily. "All of a sudden she was hit with this brand-new sense."
After she calmed down, the audiologist began the process of mapping -- using a computer to program the implant to provide the proper amount of stimulation so that Mecaden could hear and understand. A week later, when Emily tucked her into bed, she knew they'd made the right decision. She removed the processor from Mecaden's ear, turning off the implant. Mecaden patted the space behind her ear and began to cry. "She understood that she could hear with it, and she wanted it on," recalls Emily. Two months later, she said her first word: "Mama."
Three months after the activation, she was saying so many words that Emily stopped writing them down. Although the Bennetts initially planned to get Mecaden only one implant, they changed their mind a year after the first surgery, when their doctor told them about studies showing the benefits for children who received two implants before age 3. "Her language skills continued to improve from the time she got her first implant to when she got the second one, and they have improved light-years since then," Emily says.