Raquel, 6, was born without the ability to hear and received cochlear implants at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago from Dr. Nancy Young, Head, Section of Otology/Neurotology and Medical Director, Audiology & Cochlear Implant Programs.
For the hard of hearing who cannot hear well enough to understand spoken language, a cochlear implant system is the answer. It includes a surgically implanted device and a speech processor worn behind the ear to hold the batteries and microphone. Cochlear implant systems enable children to hear more sounds including soft, high-pitched sounds important to understanding spoken language.
In 2017, Raquel’s older brother Avery, 11, noticed that his sister’s small ears were struggling under the weight of her cochlear implant speech processor, especially when it was connected to the FM system she uses at school to hear her teacher when background noise is present.
“Children with cochlear implants and small ears need a better way to carry the batteries,” Avery said.
So as part of his school science fair project, Avery took it upon himself to invent a lightweight battery necklace to improve the comfort and style of the device. “My design will solve the problem,” he said. “I wanted to design a product that makes it easier and more stylish for her to carry the large amount of battery power needed for school.”
In addition to improving the quality of Raquel’s life, the design won MED-EL’s Ideas4Ears contest in the fall of 2017, landing the family a trip to Innsbruck, Austria, to visit the headquarters of MED-EL, the cochlear implant company that makes Raquel cochlear implant system. The trip, which took place in spring 2018, provided Raquel, her siblings and parents the opportunity to shake the hands of the people who actually manufactured the device that allows her to hear.
“To be able to have access to sound with the cochlear implant is just amazing,” Raquel and Avery’s mother, Heather, said. “It’s really opened up her life, and in many ways positively impacted the lives of our entire family.”
Lurie Children’s Cochlear Implant Program is one of the largest and most experienced programs in the world. Founder Nancy Young, MD, has performed more than 1,700 cochlear procedures since 1991. The multidisciplinary team collaborates closely with parents as partners to ensure each child has the opportunity to achieve their potential.
Avery’s support of his sister and his natural-born curiosity compelled him to create a device that supplements her life-changing technology, Heather said. “He’s naturally a really inquisitive kid. He loves designing, creating and inventing things. It is the core of who he is; he’s been like that since he was a little boy.”
Throughout the design process, Avery had support from his whole family—and most importantly, from Raquel. “Raquel was really patient while he was inventing it because he would try different prototypes on her,” Heather said. “She was really sweet and let him take pictures and try his various designs out. Raquel definitely understands how much the technology helps her. She enjoys wearing it. She’ll request it in the morning as soon as she gets up.”