Max Van Dyke was born profoundly deaf. Today, however, the 12-year-old speaks perfectly, is mainstreamed in school and loves to play lacrosse and basketball.
When he was just over six months old, Max’s ears were both surgically implanted with a cochlear implant, an electronic device that allowed him to hear, learn to understand speech and speak clearly.
“After the shock of finding out our baby was completely deaf, we were thrilled to learn that Chicago had one of the top otolaryngology surgeons in the country who specializes in cochlear implantation,” Max’s mom, Kristen said.
Cochlear implants enable children to hear even high-pitched consonants, such as “s,” when traditional hearing aids cannot because of the degree of loss, said Dr. Young, who has performed more than 1,700 cochlear procedures since 1991. A child’s ability to hear all the sounds that make up spoken language when people are talking at normal conversational levels is essential for language development.
“It is critical for infants to hear clearly, so that they understand when others speak and therefore are more likely to develop age-appropriate spoken language,” Dr. Young said.
During cochlear implant surgery, electrodes are threaded into the inner ear while the body of the device is secured beneath the scalp behind the ear. Most children go home the same day of the surgery. Several weeks later, the child’s device is activated by a specially trained audiologist and the child is given external components to wear that include a microphone, speech processor, battery and transmitter to enable sound to be sent to the internal device. An audiologist provides different levels of electrical stimulation to each electrode using computer programming. Follow-up programming, hearing evaluation and individual therapy that focuses on building listening and spoken language skills are critical after implantation, Dr. Young said.
Dr. Young is the founder of the Lurie Children’s Cochlear Implant Program, one of the largest pediatric implant programs in the world. She is the Lillian S. Wells Professor of Otolaryngology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a fellow at the Knowles Hearing Center of Northwestern University School of Communication.
Kristen said her family is grateful for this expertise and her son’s excellent outcome. She uses her personal experience with childhood deafness in her role as an executive director of the Chicago-based nonprofit Foundation for Hearing and Speech Rehabilitation, where she is a staunch advocate for cochlear implantation in infancy.
“Many children don’t receive cochlear implants until they are older, and by that time their speech is impacted,” she said.
Dr. Young agrees. She and Dr. Stephen Hoff, an attending surgeon on the implant team, recently evaluated outcomes of infants and young children implanted at Lurie Children’s in terms of both safety and effectiveness. This recently published study demonstrated significant advantages in development of listening and spoken language for children implanted before age 12 months. In addition, the surgery and anesthetic safety profile was the same for infants and older children in the study.
Kristen said she hopes the research means eventually more deaf children will find success like Max’s.
“Every child who is born deaf deserves the opportunity Max had to participate fully in all aspects of life,” Kristen said.