Ancient Archives Week — i.e., I’m on vacation and can’t update daily — kicks off with a theme, of sorts: How Things Change. I wrote this column in October 2001, when Elliot Kwilinski, 9 months, was about to become Indiana’s youngest cochlear implant recipient. The Kwilinskis moved to Colorado not long after their son’s surgery, but before they left I heard from them that the procedure was a success. A little present-day Googling reveals they had a second son, also born with profound deafness, also a CI recipient. I’m struck by the optimism she shows in this interview, and in this YouTube video, she indicates their choice has not been popular with some, presumably in the deaf-culture community. It was to be expected, but still depressing. The videos would indicate Elliot is growing into a fine young man. Anyway, this column, and all the ones that will follow this week, originally appeared in The News-Sentinel of Fort Wayne, my employer at the time.
In her “crying in the shower moments,” Amy Kwilinski thinks of the beach.
The beach, where one of the rituals is taking off your watch, your jewelry, and other valuables that might be harmed by exposure to sand and grit and water.
“But how do you tell a child to take off a $5,000 device that allows him to hear?” she wonders. It’s not the device she worries about; it’s her son Elliot’s ability to experience the beach the way everyone else does.
Those moments pass pretty quickly, though. Kwilinski and her husband, Kevin, know that $5,000 device – a cochlear implant – will give their son an excellent chance at experiencing life the way everyone else does.
Next week, if all goes as scheduled, Elliot will travel to Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis and there become the youngest Indiana resident to receive one of the electronic devices, which help the profoundly deaf to hear in a manner approaching natural hearing. He’s only 9 months old, still nursing, not yet crawling. But his young age will allow him to adapt to the implant in a way older recipients might not – and get the maximum benefit from it.
“We wanted to take advantage of the brain’s plasticity,” said Amy, 33, who has been researching deafness, deaf culture, hearing aids and cochlear implants since Elliot’s disability turned up in a newborn screening. In infancy, the brain is wired to learn, and learn quickly; they want Elliot experiencing the world of sound before his personal learning window narrows or closes.
A cochlear implant works through its three main parts – an external microphone, which picks up sound; a microprocessor, which codes the sound into a series of electrical impulses; and a wire that carries those impulses into the human cochlea, where they are sent to the brain and understood as sound. It is an imperfect way to hear, but an enormous improvement over conventional hearing aids.
And for an infant, whose brain is especially open to learning about sound and what sounds mean, it’s a golden opportunity, Amy believes.
“Who really knows if the way I hear is the way you hear,” she said. “The important thing is, we understand one another. . . . (People who’ve lost their hearing and then received cochlear implants) say that the voices sound like Darth Vader and Minnie Mouse at first, but you get used to them. And you recognize the voices as speech and know what they’re saying.”
Cochlear implant technology is advancing in huge strides, as well, Amy said. The latest implants represent enormous improvements over the earliest ones, and the technology itself is only a few years old. By Elliot’s adulthood, she hopes, the devices may be so small and so sophisticated that no one else need know a person is wearing one.
Many in the deaf community are opposed to the implants, particularly in children. Deafness, they believe, is not a condition to be cured but a trait of human diversity. Adults might choose CIs, but children should not have the choice imposed upon them. The Kwilinskis reject that argument.
“It’s much more difficult for a person to learn to process sound the older they are,” Amy said. “And for Elliot to talk until then, he’d have to use sign language. I want him to be able to communicate with everybody, and to choose any career he wants. What if he wants to be a surgeon? How can he work with his hands if he has to talk with them, too?”
The surgery is only the first step for Elliot. It’ll be a month before the device is activated, after which he will spend time with audiologists and speech therapists to calibrate and adjust it, effectively turning on an entirely new sense in a person who lacks any framework to understand it. After that, “it’ll be pretty noisy around here,” Amy said. She expects lots of crying, followed by sounds of delight.
“People who’ve done this with their toddlers say within a few days, the kids don’t want to take them off,” she said.
“We went to a convention (of cochlear implant recipients), and I sat there with tears in my eyes, watching these teen-agers talk to one another,” she said. “I know this is the right thing to do.”