Hearing After Half A Century

Sigrid Cerf became deaf at the age of three, after suffering from spinal meningitis.

As a deaf person, Cerf remembers feeling left out, very insecure, and "like a second-class citizen."

"It's similar to coming to another country, and you think, 'OK, I've had two years of Spanish, I should be able to do very well in Spain," Cerf says.

"You are able to get pretty much what general conversation is about, but it takes maybe a year in Spain before you understand subtleties, and you'll never be able to understand other subleties like jokes because you're never going to get the punchline."

She learned to read lips and to speak, but it wasn't until two years ago, when she turned 53, that she was able to hear again with the help of a device called a cochlear implant.

"I can now carry on a conversation on the phone, I can use the television without having to lipread anyone on the screen or even using closed captioning," Cerf said. "I can carry on conversations with a much greater degree of comfort and be comfortable in practically any kind of listening environment, even occasionally at a noisy party."

Although cochlear implants have been available in the U.S. since the 1970s, many people are unfamiliar with the technology. Cochlear implants, or CIs, are surgically placed in the inner ear.

With the help of an external speech processor, CIs turn sound waves into electrical signals that travel to the hearing nerve, which sends the signals to the brain, where they are interpreted as sound.

In the U.S., about 11,854 people have received cochlear implants. Worldwide, there are about 22,000 people with CIs. The National Center for Health Statistics estimated that from 1990-91, the number of hearing impaired Americans was 20 million.

The FDA approved the use of cochlear implants for adults in 1980 and for children as young as two-years-old in 1990. Now, children as young as 18 months can get the implant.

"The technology is unbelievable for the implants," says Mary Koch, who started the CI rehabilition program for children at The Listening Center at Johns Hopkins Medical Center. "If you saw the chip that is actually implanted in the kids' heads, it's incredible. It's far more complex than what we see on our PCs."

Koch says the technology allows for an amazing quality of sound. When CI patients heal from their surgery, they are "hooked up" to a microphone and to an external processor the size of a pack of cards. Audiologists can then fine-tune the device's sound levels.

Despite its effectiveness - and also because of it - the CI has been a source of controversy within the deaf community. Some deaf people feel that the CI is designed to fix something that doesn't need to be fixed. They condemn its use, especially on deaf children.

Grown-ups who have received CIs are not the target of the debate, however, since candidtes for the device usually had lost their hearing post-lingually, or after they were exposed to sound and language.

For some adults, the CI not only brings back sound, but also provides the thrill of new discovery.

"It was unbelievably pleasant. It's been nothing but a party since, in fact," says Cerf.