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A new way of hearing

IU doctors, new technology help Kenyan girl communicate

By Michelle Perry
The Indiana Digital Student

Published Monday, October 20, 2003

Ann Yebei woke up the day after her seventh birthday and couldn't hear a word her mother was saying.

"That morning I thought she was pulling my leg because she had a party the night before," her mother Violet Yebei said. "But after school, the first thing she said to me was that she couldn't hear the teacher and she couldn't hear the children. That's when I knew something was wrong."

Ann, who lived with her family in Kenya, had lost hearing in her left ear overnight for an unknown reason, leaving her deaf. She had lost hearing in her right ear before the age of three.

For children like Ann, coping with the loss of hearing was difficult, and many have had to learn a completely new way to communicate. Thanks to work being done at IU, however, there are more options for those who are hearing-impaired.

Ann's family left everything behind in Africa and came to Indianapolis, where doctors at the IU School of Medicine and Riley Hospital for Children were having success with cochlear implants, which allow people who are hearing impaired to hear environmental sounds.

Dr. David Pisoni, a Chancellor's Professor of Psychology and director of the Speech Research Laboratory at IU Bloomington, began working with Dr. Richard Miyamoto, a leading surgeon in pediatric implantation, at Riley several years ago.

"There is a direct connection between the clinical work we do and the patients," Pisoni said, "because we are trying to improve and make optimal the benefit the patients receive from their implant ... the way we do that is by doing research and trying to understand why there are differences between different patients."

Ph.D. candidate Rose Burkholder has been working in Pisoni's lab with a device that simulates how those with implants probably hear everyday sounds. The device shifts sounds higher, making "mouse-like" sounds.

By testing comprehension in normal-hearing adults, Burkholder said the simulator can assist researchers in helping cochlear implant recipients to use their devices more effectively.

Caitlin Dillon, another Ph.D. candidate studying under Pisoni, has been working on analyzing results from a study conducted in St. Louis in which participants, all of whom have implants, were asked to repeat novel words. She estimated 75 percent of those with implants did measurably well on this task, indicating a level of comprehension almost comparable to that of normal-hearing children, who have no problem completing the task.

"Our research is not only important clinically," Pisoni said, "but also to understanding the effects of early experience and learning the time course of development after a period of sensory deprivation."

Pisoni stressed the importance of using implants early, the environments from which children come and a child's ability to speak before losing hearing. He said all of these criteria play a role in the success of cochlear implants.

"Not every story is a success story but almost all children show some benefit," said Pisoni, who admitted not everyone agrees on the positive effects of cochlear implants.

"There are a large number of people in the deaf community who use sign language who are opposed to cochlear implants," Pisoni said. "But almost every child who gets a cochlear implant has hearing parents."

Ann's parents do hear, but they were prepared to do whatever it took to help their daughter.

"We were ready to learn sign language," Violet said. "We were ready, the whole family, to change."

The family did have to change, by moving across the world. Friends and family in Kenya worked to raise money for airfare, while the hospital waived surgery fees.

"They really did us a favor," Violet said. "I am so thankful."

Ann's parents are also thankful their daughter can speak to them again.

"At least now she can communicate with her family and friends," her father, Philemon, said. "If she is looking at you, she is able to know what you are saying."

Ann, now 8, is a second-grader at Rogers Elementary School. She wears the implant all day, and only takes it off to swim, shower and sleep. Philemon says Ann is working on her vocabulary and grammar, and thinks she has some catching up to do.

"Despite her -- let me call it -- handicap, she's fitting into the system," Philemon said. "She's an average student in class. Under all those circumstances she's come out fine."

Violet is currently working toward her Ph.D. in sociology, but Philemon is unable to work because he has a visitor's visa. Violet is anticipating the family's return to Kenya after her degree and Ann's regular check-ups are completed.

But for now, Philemon and Violet just appreciate the fact that their daughter can laugh and play with her three-year-old sister, Esther. Ann appreciates it, too.

"I am happy I can hear now," she said.

-- Contact staff writer Michelle Perry at .



Help Kids Hear is a site dedicated to helping parents of deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) children. We are parents of hard of hearing kids and simply want to "give back" to the community. We welcome your comments, questions & suggestions. Please drop us a note at