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Loud and unclear
Jimmy Bronson now tunes into life with a cochlear implant, but it's not as life-changing as it sounds.

Story by Don Mayhew
The Fresno Bee
(Published Tuesday, October 14, 2003, 7:44 AM)

Jimmy Bronson has discovered "it's not a quiet world."

Before cochlear implant surgery more than a year ago, Jimmy often removed his hearing aids when he got home at the end of the day. Now the Fresno teacher leaves his cochlear device on until bedtime.

When Jimmy does take the device off early, he makes sure he tells his wife, Michelle, so that if she needs to get his attention, she gets in his line of sight or flips a light switch on and off.

A cochlear implant simulates sound by converting it to electrical impulses that stimulate the cochlea, allowing most users to more easily understand others' speech.

The implant's advantages are significant. But there are moments when Jimmy could do with a little less noise.

"Like the clock ticking. I can ignore it, so I can shut out some sounds," Jimmy says. "But when Michelle lets out a sigh, I can hear that. I heard dogs barking from inside my house for the first time. They were out on the other side of the fence.

"I thought my house was a sanctuary. Not anymore."

The bell outside the Hoover High School classroom where Jimmy teaches deaf students no longer rattles his brain when it goes off. Early on, the ringing was excruciating, particularly if he was outside the classroom.

Jimmy says he'd have the surgery again in a heartbeat. But because it knocks out residual hearing, Jimmy won't consider an implant for his left ear. He doesn't wear his implant while sleeping and wouldn't hear anything if there were an emergency in the middle of the night.

Though two implants help locate noise and allow the user to hear better in a crowded environment, Jimmy doesn't want to rely completely on the microprocessors.

"If I have the implant off, I still hear banging noises," Jimmy says. "It's nice to know I don't have to rely 100% on a computer to hear."

Because Jimmy and his students at Hoover use sign language, little has changed in the classroom. Those returning from years previous, before the implant, say Jimmy is the same teacher he was.

But in other small groups, he communicates more independently. For a few months last fall, Jimmy and several hearing men from his church got together for Bible study, and he was able to follow along.

During a staff meeting in February, Jimmy decided to go without an interpreter. He understood "99% of it" without any help. A recent conversation with a Hoover chemistry teacher would have been difficult if not incomprehensible a couple of years ago.

Jimmy still watches television with the captioning on, but at half the volume. When the Iraq war began in March, captioning was missing from some news reports. Bronson got the gist of them by listening and lip-reading the anchors.

Jimmy hears his own speech more clearly. This is good news and bad because he doesn't particularly like what he hears. He finds his voice nasal and flat. Hearing more also has made him aware of how much he'd been missing.

Michelle puts it this way: "It's like when you first learn something, you realize how much you don't know."

When Jimmy adjusts the device's volume or microphone sensitivity upward, it hurts for a day or two. Then it bothers him for 10 minutes in the morning.

"There's a little shock first thing," Jimmy says.

At church, Jimmy has learned to lower the sensitivity. He can hear the pastor without the distraction of background noise.

"Sometimes less is more," Jimmy says.

Before surgery, one of Jimmy's goals was to use the phone without a teletype device or the help of a relay service operator, who reads what a deaf person has typed to the hearing person on the other end of the line, then transcribes what the hearing person says so the deaf one can read it.

Jimmy's audiologist, Cache Pitt, says that for someone of Jimmy's background, ordinary telephone use would be "a very high-performance goal."

"He won't be able to understand ongoing speech if he doesn't already understand the topic," Pitt says.

Jimmy might be an exception.

"But our experience for someone in his situation is that they're not great performers on the telephone," Pitt says.

The Bronsons' daughter, Courtney, was born early Jan. 22, before anyone at the hospital could deliver a teletype device to their room. Michelle's mom, Karen Balske, was at the Bronsons' home, watching A.J., the couple's 2-year-old son.

Jimmy decided to call her with the good news. It was the first phone conversation he'd had in 17 years.

"I was nervous," Jimmy says. "But it was much easier than I thought."

Balske had to speak slowly. But because she was familiar with Jimmy's abilities -- and Jimmy was familiar with her voice -- it worked.

"I heard 'hello,' " Jimmy says. "I told her that Courtney Rose was born at 7:09, weighed nine pounds, 15 ounces, was 21 inches long, then I waited. She said, 'Jimmy, can you hear me?' I said yes. Then she said, 'Tell Michelle we're very happy.' "

They made arrangements for Michelle's parents to visit later in the day. It was a triumphant moment already filled with joy.

But Jimmy's limitations became evident when the phone rang later and a nurse handed it to him. It may have been a wrong number.

"I couldn't understand anything," Jimmy says. "I need time to think, to process."

Jimmy also "crashed and burned" when he tried to order pizza by phone a couple of weeks later.

But during Courtney's birth, Michelle was more at ease than she had been when A.J. was born. Seeing that her husband could follow what hospital staff said allowed her to relax.

After talking to his mother-in-law on the phone, Jimmy called his classroom at Hoover and left a voice message for co-workers. One later told him that not only was Jimmy understandable but she could hear Courtney crying in the background.

"I think it's more personalized," Jimmy says. "If I had called on the [teletype], she would not have heard the baby cry. She would not have heard my voice inflection."

Somewhere along the way, Michelle decided not to get an implant.

When she learned she was pregnant, she considered having the surgery soon after Courtney was born. Then she decided to wait until after she stopped breast-feeding.

Then her desire for an implant vanished. She hasn't ruled it out altogether, but it's not going to happen soon.

The turning point came during one of Jimmy's visits to Stanford to reprogram the device. Michelle, whose lip-reading skills always have been a little more refined than Jimmy's, had no problem keeping up with the conversation, even when the audiologists were in profile, speaking to Jimmy.

The audiologists were surprised. That was a red flag for Michelle, who already had grown skeptical.

When the Bronsons were first evaluated at Stanford, Jimmy and Michelle fared the same.

"We were surprised," Michelle says. "How can I have the same test results as Jimmy? He's always had more hearing."

Michelle realized that because she grew up spending more time in hearing environments, she fills in the blanks better.

"I'm good with contextual stuff," Michelle says. "I grew up mainstream. I have to work really hard, but I've come to learn how to fill in the blanks really good. Jimmy doesn't try to fill in the blanks. He asks me to repeat myself, to sign every word. He wants to make sure he has all the facts."

Jimmy's analytical curiosity makes an implant useful.

Michelle says, "Jimmy has always been keenly interested in what a word sounded like. I've never cared."

Environmental sounds don't interest Michelle.

"I don't want to hear the tick, tick, tick of a clock or the hum of the fridge or something," she says.

Michelle's decision might have gnawed at some marriages. Jimmy worried she was avoiding surgery because she was afraid of the pain. Having given birth twice, Michelle laughed at that one.

She felt left behind when Jimmy had his surgery, disappointed they couldn't go through the experience together. But fairly quickly, they came to terms with their "mixed" marriage.

"I don't want to say I'm living vicariously through him -- I'm genuinely glad," Michelle says. "But my gut feeling is that it's not for me. The funny thing is that before, I really wanted it. Jimmy was opposed to it. Once he had it, I didn't want it. It's like, now my job is done."

It's interesting how different siblings can be. A.J. is boisterous -- active from the time he was a baby. Courtney is calm. She sleeps longer than her brother did at her age.

Courtney, less than a week old, lies on her father's lap at the kitchen table, content and snoozing after having been fed. A.J. holds a balloon with a giant yellow happy face and starts chewing on it, making loud squeaks.

Courtney's startle reflex kicks in. She winces. Her little arms jump. Michelle looks over and says, "She's a hearing baby."

A couple months later, the Bronsons aren't so sure.

They wonder whether it's temperament or hearing that's different between Courtney and A.J. Though Michelle says Courtney certainly hears loud, abrupt noise, she doesn't look for the source of softer sounds.

"She sees your face, then she smiles," Michelle says.

On the other hand, Courtney has begun babbling to her parents when they coo to her, sometimes matching their intonation. She's become more consistent through the year in the way she reacts to sound.

The Bronsons aren't terribly concerned -- sign language already is an option.

"A.J. and I had to figure out a way to communicate, and we did," Michelle says. "Courtney and I will figure out a way to communicate."

A.J. knows about 50 signs. But Michelle says he'll always speak more than sign.

"It's sort of one language at the expense of another," Michelle says. "He has hearing playmates. Everywhere he goes, he has hearing people around. So it makes sense that his speech will be more developed than his signing."

He has begun speaking in short sentences and, like any toddler waist-deep in his "terrible twos," mocking his parents when they grow angry with his behavior.

A.J. sometimes grows impatient when his mom doesn't understand what he says. He rolls his eyes and stalks off. He doesn't do that with Jimmy, who understands A.J.'s speech more easily.

Some deaf acquaintances have insisted the Bronsons need to teach their kids sign language. Michelle knows they mean well. But she's wary of cut-and-dried advice.

"If they learn sign, fine," Michelle says. "If they don't, we'll deal with it. But if they're forced to sign, that'll turn them off it."

There are moments when Jimmy's implant doesn't help. Like any parent, he doesn't care for it when his kids whine.

Getting used to that "was big," Jimmy says. "It was boot camp for my ear."

Michelle has watched her husband grapple with his implant for more than a year, and she's still impressed.

Jimmy downplays the effect it has had on their lives. Asked to imagine what he'll remember years from now about this part of his life, he talks first about Courtney's birth, then the purchase of their house. The implant is third.

But Michelle says, "I marvel at how Jimmy went through this and did it for his kids. He didn't sacrifice anything about himself -- he's the same Jimmy. . . . But he has to deal with a lot of noise now. He had to sacrifice his constant peace and quiet."

Pinpointing how life is different is elusive. Perhaps it's the frame and not the picture that has changed most.

During a family outing to Fresno's Oso de Oro park on a bright spring afternoon, Michelle watches Jimmy and A.J. toddle off to a playground, hand in hand.

Courtney's asleep in her car seat, which sits on a gray concrete table in the shade. Michelle talks about the fine line she and her husband sometimes have to negotiate.

She points out that Jimmy grew up in a deaf household and spent much of his youth learning, working and worshipping with other deaf people. But having kids who hear has changed that.

"Jimmy can't say his family is all deaf. The kids are not," Michelle says. "Now he's not just a member of one world. He's a member of two."

The reporter can be reached at or 441-6322.



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