The Sun Has Finally Come Out for Alex

By Lydia Denworth | April 10, 2006 | Newsweek | Topics: Hearing and Sound, Parenting and Family, Science and Health

With his new cochlear implant, our son is able to talk and sing. The transformation is miraculous.

My son Alex told me about his day recently. He played cars with Max and Aidan, sang the “Mr. Sun” song and danced–a typical day for a 2-year-old. His report, however, was anything but routine. It was the first real conversation we had ever had. Alex is hearing-impaired. Every word he utters is hard-won, but his battle got a lot easier a few months ago when he received a cochlear implant.

The success of the implant marks the first time in a year that he has done better than expected, not worse. The process of uncovering Alex’s hearing loss was long and frustrating–like falling down steps in slow motion. Now we’re at the bottom of the stairs, but we’re looking at where we came from, getting ready to climb back up.

We live in New York, a state that requires newborn hearing screenings, which Alex passed. But at 16 months, he had just started walking and could say only “hi,” “bye” and “Mama.” He qualified for physical and cognitive therapy, but not for speech. At 18 months, when he had no more words, we went for the first hearing test. Alex failed, but his ears were full of fluid. We spent the next two months trying to clear up the fluid for a new hearing test.

You’d think it would be obvious that he couldn’t hear well, but it wasn’t. He answered to his name, he reacted to music and he compensated well by using visual cues. His mistakes were subtle, like holding up his hands when you held out a washcloth and said you wanted to wash his face.

Then one January night in 2005, his brothers heard their father’s key in the door and ran to greet him. Alex didn’t react until I tapped his shoulder and pointed. Then he tore down the hall into his Dad’s arms. My heart sank. In February, after tubes had cleared up the fluid, tests showed that Alex also had underlying nerve damage that had caused moderate-to-severe hearing loss in both ears–he could hear a motorcycle, but not a vacuum cleaner; normal conversation sounded like whispers.

He had never heard the lullabies I’d sung or the “I love you’s” I’d murmured. I felt I had failed him by not figuring it out sooner. It was a relief, though, to finally have an explanation for what he couldn’t do. No matter how many times I read “Goodnight Moon,” he was never going to be able to point to the cow jumping over the moon if he couldn’t hear the word “cow.” We were told he could catch up. In March, he got hearing aids, and in April, he started speech therapy five days a week.

In June, a CT scan revealed that Alex had congenitally deformed cochleae. He also had a condition that meant things could get worse: a bump on the head could cause him to lose his remaining hearing. “It might never happen,” said our doctor. But by fall, he had lost all hearing in the right ear. I was in a daze for a week. I hadn’t realized how fiercely I’d been clinging to the

We started talking about cochlear implants. Unlike a hearing aid, which amplifies sound, an implant digitizes sound and sends it via magnets and electrodes directly to the brain. Alex’s vocabulary had grown from five words to more than 200 in six months of using hearing aids, but he wasn’t saying sounds like “k” or “t” at all. (“Come, Tom” sounded like “Um, Om.”) If testing proved that Alex wasn’t hearing high-frequency sounds like k and t, he could get an implant.

With a wrenching switch of emotional gears, my husband and I immediately hoped Alex’s hearing would be declared bad enough to qualify. The success stories amazed us: implanted children in mainstream classrooms speaking beautifully, nearly indistinguishable from hearing classmates.

Alex had his surgery in December, making him one of approximately 100,000 people worldwide who use implants (up from 5,000 in 1990). After a month, the external parts were turned on– almost a year to the day he didn’t hear his father at the door.

We’d been warned it would take months to see progress, but the next day Alex said “cake” complete with the initial “k” sound. Then he pointed to “Blue’s Clues” on the TV and said “mailbox” on cue. He has new words and sentences nearly every day. The combination of his anatomy, his residual hearing and the language he already had made him ideal for this device.

Years of speech therapy, hearing tests and doctors loom ahead, but for the moment, I am content to marvel at the gift my little boy has been given. When he finishes telling me about his day by singing a shaky version of “Mr. Sun,” no lullaby has ever sounded sweeter to my ears–or his.