February 27, 2008

A Story About Cochlear Implants

Jane Brody writes in Tuesday's New York Times about Josh Swiller, a 37-year-old who has sensorineural hearing loss and recently received surgery for cochlear implants. Swiller was born with some ability to hear, and wore amplification devices, but several years ago, he had to stop using them due to headaches and ultimately lost all hearing. He was fluent in sign language and was adept at reading lips.

So three years ago he "underwent life-changing surgery, substituting a cochlear implant for the hearing aids that were no longer working..." With the implant, Swiller's hearing is at 100%, although he appreciates being able to remove it, particularly on the subway.

Brody mentions some touchy issues, like the opposition to cochlear implants by some in the deaf community because they believe that implants threaten that community. Indeed, she quotes Swiller as saying that "...[b]ecause of cochlear implants ... deaf schools around the country are rapidly losing enrollment." She also quotes him as saying that sign language can be learned later in life, "...but not English." Not sure I agree with that, but it's an interesting argument. Certainly learning to speak can be more difficult.

Finally, Brody describes what hearing at 100% was like for Swiller. It reminds me a bit of my experience achieving binocular vision, and must echo (excuse the pun) what Stereo Sue experienced.
“The first sound I heard was ‘sh’ — I’d never heard that or ‘s’ before,” [Swiller] continued. “Then one day, I passed someone on the street talking on a cellphone, and I heard everything she said crystal clear. That had never happened before — hearing something when I was not paying attention to the sound. I can now hear conversations from another room; before I couldn’t hear distant speech at all.”
  • "Cochlear implants are electronic devices that contain a current source and an electrode array that is implanted into the cochlea; electrical current is then used to stimulate the surviving auditory nerve fibers (Wilson, 2000)." American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
  • Sensorineural hearing loss: "...occurs when there is damage to the inner ear (cochlea) or to the nerve pathways from the inner ear (retrocochlear) to the brain. Sensorineural hearing loss cannot be medically or surgically corrected. It is a permanent loss." American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
For More Information
Books Brody mentions; links in WorldCat:

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