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Cochlear implants

That was a gift from God

28. October 2019
The three-and-a-half-year-old Phuong was born in Vietnam with severe hearing loss. A cochlear implant seemed unattainable to her parents. But the joint program of the Global Foundation For Children With Hearing Loss and the Hear the World Foundation gave them new hope.
Only a few months after the birth of Phuong, her family gets the impression that something is wrong. When someone calls her name, Phuong doesn't look up. Even when the monsoon rains rage outside and batter the windows with full force, the baby shows no reaction. Phuong is one year old when a doctor in a Vietnamese hospital confirms what her parents feared: The child suffers from severe hearing loss.
 
This is the second time that Phuong's mother, Mai, has received such a diagnosis. Her older daughter also has hearing problems and uses a hearing aid. The purchase of the device put financial strain on the family. There is no state health insurance in Vietnam. The hearing aid could only be paid for with the support of friends, relatives and donations. That Phuong would now also need help caused despair in her mother. "I was sad and shocked," she says.

Two and a half years have passed since then. The life of Phuong and her family has taken a positive turn since then. It's early morning in the southern Vietnamese metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. Phuong pushes a colorful toy shopping cart through a waiting room. She has an important appointment: In the local Sonova hearing center, an audiologist will activate a cochlear implant system that Phuong received a few weeks ago during an operation and which will ensure that the girl can hear clearly in the future.

The technology, which uses electrodes to send signals to the auditory nerve which are then transmitted to the brain for recognition of sound, seemed out of reach for Phuong's family. Phuong's mother works in a textile factory and her father is a construction worker. Both are in their mid-30s and their monthly household income is an average salary in Vietnam that is not enough for major expenses. A CI system would have cost at least two and a half years of income – unaffordable for Phuong's parents.
Instead, the family placed their hopes in a an early intervention center for children with hearing loss that was established by a Catholic nun and her convent to address the need for such services in the province. Phuong's parents knew the institution because their eldest daughter also goes to school there. The headmistress, Sister Thuy started the early intervention center with her sisters after they all attended years of training programs provided by the Global Foundation For Children With Hearing Loss.
 
Sister Thuy helped organize financial support for hearing aids for Phuong. After getting her hearing aids, Phuong received auditory-verbal therapy services from the Vietnamese teachers at the center and made some progress. She learned to pronounce many words clearly. But progressive hearing loss caused her increasing difficulties. The hearing aid helped her less and less and her mother's worries became bigger and bigger: "I was wondering if she would ever be able to live independently and who would take care of her when we were too old."

Phuong's principal saw a way out: She told the family about the new program that the Global Foundation For Children With Hearing Loss and the Hear the World Foundation had developed. The program donates CI systems and associated surgery to children in need and  Phuong's mother completed the application for her daughter to be considered for the program. An answer was not long in coming. It was positive. The girl's mother says: "That was a gift from God."

Doctors tested Phuong's health and gave the go-ahead for the operation. She left with shorn hair and an implant under her skull. After three days in the hospital post surgery, Phuong left for home and her family was feeling hopeful as they waited for the day the CI would be switched on.

On the day of activation Phuong makes a cheerful impression. She rushes through the hearing center like it's her playroom. A plastic duck arouses her interest in the audiologist's room. She plays with it while the specialist uses software to check whether the CI system is functioning properly. Then a simple mouse click is all it takes for the speech processor to start working and send the first signals to Phuong's brain via the implant. The girl seems to react to her altered perception only with a short movement of her head. The system is still set to a low level so that Phuong can get used to it. The audiologist plays sounds to the girl from different directions in the room. Phuong immediately turns her head as she hears a rattling sound to her left. The system works, Phuong is responding to the sounds.
 
In the coming weeks Phuong will have to go regularly to the Sonova hearing center to have the device readjusted. As a reward for going through the activation, the Sonova employees give her a stuffed monkey toy as a gift. The animal wears a CI system made of fabric on its head. With the monkey in her arm, Phuong walks to a window next to the elevator and looks out from the tenth floor, fascinated by the lively big city. Phuong seems to suspect it: There's a new world waiting for her down there.
 

Links

Learn more about the CI project in Vietnam. 

Blogpost: When hearing aids no longer help - a father's story
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