'60' Classic: Caitlin's Story

Get Reacquainted With Caitlin Parton, Now 13

When Caitlin Parton was first profiled by Ed Bradley in 1992, she was six, and had lost her hearing after a serious bout with meningitis. But with the help of an operation known as a cochlear implant, Caitlin regained her hearing.

In this 60 Minutes Classic, Ed finds out what Caitlin has been doing since then.

60 Minutes II,
Caitlin's Story

Find out much more about cochlear implants and the debate over their use .
The device works by actually delivering sound to the brain the way the ear should. It consists of a microphone that sends signals to a processor, which relays those signals to a receiver and electrodes which have been surgically implanted in the user's head. The electrodes stimulate the auditory nerve, and the brain hears. The surgery and the implant can cost as much as $40,000. Doctors warn the implant will not restore normal hearing. Furthermore, success is not guaranteed -- each user has a different level of perception with the device.

The device helped Caitlin a great deal. She was able to speak, and to hear well enough to hold conversations with strangers. Her hearing was sharp enough that it allowed her to go to a mainstream elementary school.

But for many in the deaf community, cochlear implants were anathema. They argued that deafness was not a disability, and that cochlear implants would only serve to make it so. This so-called "deaf culture" - two million people who use American sign language, and who socialize mainly with other deaf people - was adamantly opposed to this operation. They even asked the FDA to withdraw its approval of cochlear implant use in children.

Caitlin and her parents, however, were ecstatic over the changes the operation had brought.

When we meet Caitlin again, she is 13 years old. She is still using her cochlear implants, which have gotten technologically more advanced over the past six years. She still goes to mainstream public schools, and last year made the honor roll. Although she does not quite have normal hearing with her implant, she comes very close. Not only is she learning to speak French, she is taking piano lessons.

In the public sphere, implant opponents have softened their position. For example, The National Association of the Deaf has withdrawn its public opposition to putting implants into children. And the pool of people who can benefit from implants has grown.

"To be able to hear means so much," she says. "Because without hearing, I'm missing wonderful sounds,...I mean, without that, I don't know how my life would be without those sounds. Because with those sounds, my life is filled. I'm living my life to the fullest."

produced by David Kohn;