For the hearing-impaired children who leave John Niparko’s operating room with the small device he implants between the skull and ear canal, the surgery marks a vital turning point in their journey toward hearing and communication. But it’s what happens afterward—in speech therapy classes and during interactions with their family and friends—that take them furthest.
Though most children receive cochlear implants around the age of 1, they miss out on critical, early exposure to sound in the months before they begin hearing with their devices, says Niparko, who directs the Listening Center at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Department of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery. Once the cochlear implants are placed, children and their families must begin working to make up for that lost time. “Children who experience deafness go through a time of deprivation when they haven’t had the sounds of speech or environment or music to assimilate to. There are nuances of tone, rhythm and loudness within sounds that convey a lot of the meaning in speech, and these children have to learn that,” Niparko explains. “Ongoing therapy is essential to this technology and to helping these children make use of it.”
The program’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed. In February, National Geographic interviewed Niparko for a feature story in the magazine about the Johns Hopkins cochlear implant and speech therapy programs. And recently, the Listening Center at Hopkins was recognized by the Alfred Mann Foundation as the organization’s 2008 Program of Excellence for its clinical efforts with deaf children and their families. “In addition to the rehabilitative services we provide, they seemed especially interested in our ongoing clinical research,” Niparko says.
Much of the center’s research focuses on a child’s language development and quality of life following cochlear implant surgery. Scientists in the Listening Center have been able to obtain government grants to support further projects that track development after implantation, but, Niparko says, private philanthropy is constantly needed.
Mallene Wiggin works with 2-year-old
patient Malayah Hancock during a regular
speech therapy session
Malayah Hancock is a perfect example of how important it is for children to receive cochlear implants and subsequent speech therapy at an early age. Born without hearing, she was provided hearing aids for several months before her family and physician realized she was neither responding to nor benefiting from them. So, just before her second birthday, her parents opted for cochlear implants, and another Hopkins ear surgeon, Charley Della Santina, performed the procedure.
Now, a few months after her surgery, she attends regular weekly speech, language and listening therapy sessions accompanied by her mother, Rotica Alston. Between therapy sessions, her mother continually works to develop her early language and auditory skills at home. “These parents make a tremendous investment of time and energy,” says Malayah’s speech therapist, Mallene Wiggin. “We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to guide the family to set high expectations for their children so that they can reach their full potential.” For more information please call 410-955-9397.