What Is Life Like After a Cochlear Implant for a Person Born Deaf?

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Feb. 19 2013 5:04 PM

What Is Life Like After a Cochlear Implant for a Person Born Deaf?

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Jim Patrick, the chief scientist of the Australian hearing implant technology company Cochlear, displays a newer model of the cochlear implant, in 2005.

Photo by Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

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This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Cristina Hartmann, writer:

Well, this is a tough question for me since I've lived far more years with a cochlear implant (CI) than without.

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In 1991, I was one of the first 500 children to get a CI after FDA approval of pediatric CIs. I was 6 years old.

A few months prior, my mother had asked me if I wanted to hear. I said yes at once since I wanted to know what the fuss was all about. As my mom explained the operation to me, I got this sense that it'd be magic. (OK, I wasn't a bright 6-year-old.)

Well, the magic consisted of me being wheeled into an overbright operating room, chilly from only wearing a thin gown. A few moments later, someone put a mask up to my face. The sour, musky gas put me to sleep almost immediately.

I woke up a few hours later with a huge bandage around my head. I stayed in a hospital in New York City (my family was in upstate New York) having a great time with other patients. I stayed home for more than a month, since back then, the incisions were rather large and kept bleeding.

When I turned on the implant about a month and half after surgery, I ran down the hall, screaming. I expected that I would be able to hear instantaneously. That proved not to be the case.

You see, if you never heard before, any unfamiliar sensation feels like pain. I stood at the end of the hallway, half-aghast, half-sobbing since all I felt was pain, and I didn't hear anything.

A few hours later, I heard my first sound—at least what I thought was sound—a motorcycle starting on the street outside of the hospital. I was not impressed.

It took me two years of speech therapy to follow a simple spoken sentence. It took me another two or three years to speak intelligibly. Another few years passed before I was confident enough to speak in public. Altogether, I underwent 10 years of speech therapy (daily sessions for the first few years, and then it petered out to weekly sessions once I was 13). If a child gets an implant quite young, such as at age 1, the process is far easier than it was for me.

I remember the first thing I ordered just using my voice. It was a soft-serve ice cream cone at Wendy's at a mall near my house. I was so proud of myself, seeing my hard work pay off (an added bonus was that I paid for the ice cream with my own money). I was around 9 and that, to this day, was the best ice cream cone that I've ever had.

Today, 22 years later, I use spoken English as my primary mode of communication in everyday things. I still use ASL whenever I chance upon a deaf person. I have, however, stayed mostly within the hearing world in the last few years.

Sometimes, I think back to one of the questions that I asked my mom before I got my CI. I asked her if I would be deaf or hearing. She told me that I'd be both. I don't think that's true. I'm neither deaf nor hearing. I don't sign as often anymore, but I don't speak or hear well enough to be like hearing people.

Getting a CI changed the course of my life. Before I had the CI, I was well on my way on becoming an integral, perhaps a little isolationist, member of the deaf community. I used only ASL and didn't speak a word. Left to my own devices, I probably would've gone to a deaf college, not a hearing college. Who knows where I would be today?

Not much changed immediately after my CI surgery. I still went to the deaf program in my district. I still used ASL every day. Over the years, things changed. my deaf friends, who were my closest friends, started to make fun of me and my CI, calling me a "robot" and "freak." All of this took place during the height of deaf opposition to CIs in children. Even though today, I get very few comments, I still remember how lonely these taunts made me feel. From the age of 8, I felt very much alone. Fortunately, this doesn't happen as often within the deaf community anymore, but I got some of the worst of the backlash.

Sometimes, despite myself, I miss these silent years. I'll spend a day (a day when I don't really need to interact with anyone hearing) with my CI off and luxuriate in the silence. After a while, the real world intervenes and I turn my CI back on.

So, to answer your question, getting a CI changed my life for the better and for the worse. Worlds of opportunities opened up for me, but I lost an identity.

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