A little girl dancing with joy is an uplifting, but generally unremarkable image, but earlier this week, that sight caught the attention of the entire nation. The child’s name is Kennedy Steele, and she was dancing because, for the first time in her life, she could hear her mother’s voice.
Kennedy was born deaf, and for her mother, Nickia Steele, the relief and excitement at watching her child experience sound was a long time coming. Kennedy’s situation is exceptional, so standard treatments weren’t available to her.
“It’s something I’ve been looking forward to,” Nickia told reporters.
A new approach
Many hearing impaired people use a device known as a cochlear implant, which works by stimulating the a cluster of nerve fibers that transmit sound between the cochlea and the brain, these are known as the auditory nerve. Unfortunately for Kennedy, the cochlear implant couldn’t work for her. Her deafness resulted from the absence of these auditory nerves essential to making it work.
Instead, the little girl was the recent recipient of a new, different kind of treatment.. The auditory brainstem transplant bypasses the parts of Kennedy’s inner ear that are missing, making it possible for her to finally hear.
Already a known treatment for adult patients, auditory brainstem transplants have only just become available to children, and only on a trial basis. So far, California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and New York are the only states where such trials are in the works. Kennedy received her treatment at NYU’s Langone Medical Center.
The power of language
For the next five years, doctors will keep track of Kennedy’s progress. Measuring the ways in which her new sense enables her to develop new methods of communication. Language development is part of a major end game for many hearing impaired people.
Sign language or ASL as it’s commonly known, is a powerful communication tool for many deaf individuals, but without effective lip reading, everyday interactions can be a challenge. Not many hearing abled people choose ASL as their second language.
According to doctors at Lagone, they have reason to believe that once these treatments provide children with the necessary auditory input, oral language is likely to develop naturally. While many technological advancements have made it possible for deaf people to translate their sign language into words, the ability to truly hear and process language is still an incomparable goal.
Into the unknown
For doctors, how the brain will process and react to finally being able to hear sound is a big mystery. Patients like Kennedy are breaking new ground and their results will determine the future of the implant treatment. Many, like Kennedy’s mother and family, remain positive. They say that being able to communicate with her better has been “the most important thing.”