Nurture Article | The Portland Hospital Parenting Magazine
Spring/Summer Issue 2014 | Ava's Amazing Journey to Hear
When six-year-old Ava Pearson’s mother Lauren hears her daughter playing the piano, she can hardly believe her ears. Not because her daughter is a musical genius – but because Ava was born profoundly deaf.
Ava’s deafness was picked up after failing the routine newborn screening test and a follow-up test at six weeks old.
“The specialists we first saw told us she ‘might’ one day talk but would always need to use hearing aids, and that we would need to teach her sign language and lip reading,” recalls Lauren, 36, a literary agent who lives with her husband Chris, 37, a banker and their son Johnny, three, in north London.
“Back then I didn’t imagine that she would be able to hear and enjoy music the way she does.”
Luckily, the Pearsons found out about cochlear implant surgery on the internet and were referred to The Portland Hospital by their GP.
Audiologists at the hospital fitted Ava with hearing aids, but they didn’t provide enough benefit for her degree of hearing loss and the couple decided on cochlear implants instead - electronic systems that stimulate the hearing nerve in the cochlea in the inner ear, giving a sensation of sound.
At nine months old, Ava became one of the youngest children in the UK to have cochlear implant surgery.
The cochlea is the part of the inner ear which converts sound vibrations into nerve impulses which are carried to the brain and recognised as distinctive sounds.
The hair cells in Ava’s cochlea do not function properly so these impulses do not travel to the brain.
With an implant, though, sound vibrations bypass the inner ear and stimulate the auditory nerve directly.
The surgery involves implanting an electrode into the cochlea to stimulate the auditory nerve.
This is connected to an external sound processor, usually worn behind the ear which picks up sound and converts it to electrical signals.
Ava’s surgeon Mr Benjamin Hartley, a Consultant Paediatric Otolaryngologist at both The Portland and Great Ormond Street Hospitals, now performs more than a dozen similar operations a year at The Portland.
“Thanks to cochlear implants, the vast majority of children born profoundly deaf these days will hear sound - although it’s not normal sound - and learn to speak and live a much more normal life,” says Mr Hartley.
“Implants aren’t a cure for deafness as people who have them are still dependent on the device to hear - but they can provide a big improvement in quality of life for deaf people.”
Three weeks after surgery, Ava had her device switched on and was fitted with an external sound processor.
“Over a few weeks we connected the external processor to a computer and, based on Ava’s neural and behavioural responses, we programmed the device,” explains Anel De Clerk, an audiologist at The Portland.
“The level of sound was progressively increased in order for her brain to get used to the electronic sound.” The implant was such a success that Ava had a second implant in her other ear three months later and, by her three month post-surgery check-up, she had caught up with her peer group in terms of speech and language development.
“The effects were amazing,” says Lauren. “Ava was soon responding to sounds and by 11 months she was talking – it was all due to a combination of early intervention and then speech therapy.
“Ava received quite intense speech therapy early on; fortnightly at a charity called Auditory Verbal (www.avuk.org) and weekly at The Portland.
“Each session lasted an hour, involved games and play-based therapy and Ava really enjoyed them. Her visits to both places dropped down to monthly quite quickly, and by the time she was about three she had ‘graduated’ from speech therapy altogether and was well ahead of her age in speech and language development, even in terms of her hearing peers.
“She doesn’t receive therapy or support of any kind now and thus far hasn’t needed a Statement of Special Educational needs, though we always keep a close eye on her progress in case things should change.
“We couldn’t have asked for better treatment and we will be grateful to the hospital forever – they’ve given our child the chance to enjoy life to the full.”
Ava is now at school and doing well, already learning French and able to mimic her mother’s American accent to blend in when visiting relatives in the States.
She returns to The Portland every six months to have her processor adjusted.
“Ava also enjoys ballet and listening to music. Her speech is normal and in the classroom she appears to hear her teachers fine – you really wouldn’t know that she is deaf at all unless she told you.”
The Portland now offers a number of different types of hearing implants including bone conduction implants for children with problems in the middle and outer ear.
For a consultation with Mr Hartley please call Children’s Outpatients at The Portland Hospital on 020 7390 8352.
Words by Jo Waters