Five-year-old Matteo VanBeveren smiled brightly and giggled as he listened for sounds in the East Tennessee State University Cochlear Implant Clinic Thursday morning.
Steve VanBeveren and his wife Kristin brought their 5-year-old son Matteo to the new clinic Thursday in the school’s audiology and speech-language department to give Matteo, who has been profoundly deaf likely his whole life, a thorough examination. The family wanted to know if there is anything more they could do for Matteo beyond his current hearing aids. With his hearing aids, Matteo has a 40 percent hearing loss.
ETSU recently opened the Cochlear Implant Clinic to meet what Saravanan Elangovan, an associate professor of audiology at ETSU, called a regional need.
“There’s a growing awareness about cochlear implants in the Tri-Cities area and Northeast Tennessee,” Elangovan said. “Increasingly we’ve been seeing patients needing these services and they would have to travel to Knoxville or to Nashville to get these services.”
A cochlear implant is a complex, tiny device that actually can help people who are severely to profoundly hard of hearing get the sense of hearing, Elangovan said.
“It’s different than a hearing aid, because while a hearing aid amplifies the sound, a cochlear implant bypasses these damaged parts and directly stimulates the hearing nerve,” he said. “And so these individuals who are not benefiting much from a hearing aid might benefit from a cochlear implant.”
The VanBeverens are visiting Johnson City from Brazil. They adopted Matteo when he was 3. At that time he was hearing practically nothing, his father Steve VanBeveren said.
Matteo was born prematurely. It is possible the powerful drugs he was administered just after his birth affected his hearing.
About six months after he came home with the VanBeverens, Matteo was fitted with two hearing aids, which allowed him to hear.
“But for someone who hasn’t heard in 3 1/2 years by that point, he had no internal language,” Steve said.
Matteo began working with a speech therapist twice a week and began getting acclimated to sounds and attributing meaning to those sounds. He was evaluated for a cochlear implant in Brazil, but it was deemed too risky, especially since the hearing aids worked.
Matteo’s father said the family took advantage of ETSU’s new clinic while in town to see if anything had changed with Matteo or any new advice could be offered to help improve his sense of hearing.
There are guidelines for cochlear implant candidacy for both adults and children. Elangovan said audiologists must make certain a patient is not getting optimum benefit from hearing aids prior to having a cochlear implant, because the sound that people hear is not the same after a cochlear implant is in place.
“Often it’s going to sound mechanical or electrical,” Elangovan said of how cochlear implant patients hear sounds. “The present technology has advanced significantly since cochlear implants were first approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) in 1980, but we’re still at the level where there’s only a limited frequency range provided, even for the best candidate.”
Currently, the Tri-Cities area does not have a surgical team that can do cochlear implants. The closest facility is in Knoxville, followed by Nashville.
“We’re hoping to provide the audiology and speech-language services over here for candidacy evaluation and follow up services,” Elangovan said. “And we are also hoping, once awareness reaches the medical professionals, we would have a surgical team in place over here and that way it would be all in-house.”
Elangovan said about 250,000 people around the world have cochlear implants, of which around 70,000 live in the United States.
“And these numbers have been increasing in the recent years, especially because of increased awareness of this technology,” Elangovan said.
He said ETSU hopes to increase awareness even more through the clinic.
Cochlear implants cost on average between $100,000 and $120,000, Elangovan said. Oftentimes, insurance pays for the procedure, though not always.
Having a cochlear implant is a long term commitment, because it must be periodically evaluated to ensure it is functioning properly, and children may need speech and language therapy.
The ETSU clinic can provide that follow up treatment.
Matteo was the second patient seen by the clinic since it opened. There are some appointments booked in the near future.
ETSU audiology and speech-language students will participate in the clinic. Elangovan said the clinic gives a good opportunity for students to take the cochlear implant evaluation skills to an employer.
Research on cochlear implants will also be possible for ETSU audiologists. Elangovan said research will help improve the devices’ functionality.
Some people in the deaf community oppose cochlear implants, preferring to hold onto the culture of silence.
Matteo’s mother, Kristin, said Matteo complains if he does not have his hearing aids.
“So to me that is a sign that he wants to hear,” Kristin said. “He wants to be a part of the hearing world. So we want to facilitate that in any way we can.”
The clinic is located on the second floor of Lamb Hall on the ETSU campus. For more information call the Speech and Language Clinic at 423-439-4584 and inquire about the Cochlear Implant Clinic.