Cochlear Implants and the Miracle of Sound

Toddler in a hospital bed post cochlear Implant surgery

Our son Maclain was born prematurely in August 2007. He seemed to be recovering from a difficult birth but while he was being cared for in hospital he developed jaundice and obvious symptoms of bilirubin neurotoxicity, such as lethargy and irritability. This led to Kernicterus, a devastating and preventable condition, that left him with severe cerebral palsy affecting all his fine and gross motor functions.

While he was still in hospital, Maclain failed his newborn hearing screening, but we were not concerned. We were assured the noise of a bustling neonatal intensive care unit had likely caused an issue with his results. However, a few months later a hearing test revealed our worst fear – our newborn son was diagnosed with a severe hearing loss, and we were told he was deaf. We were heartbroken. The news hit me harder than Maclain’s eventual diagnosis of cerebral palsy.

We were told this was a permanent condition. Hearing aids would not work for him and sign language seemed to be the only option, which we had worries about because we sensed he may have gross motor challenges. We refused to give up hope and I did some research and we sought a second opinion from an audiologist. That’s when we learned about the Hospital for Sick Children’s cochlear implant program.

Managing Expectations

Cochlear implantation was a game changer. Without it, Maclain was stone deaf. But this life-changing surgery didn’t come without its challenges. It took us a while to advocate on our son’s behalf because children with disabilities were not considered as good candidates for the implant.

Doctors tempered our expectations and told us not to expect Maclain to be verbal. However, despite his disability, he has done phenomenally well with his implant. With the help of incredible speech-language pathologists, he now hears at an age-appropriate level and is a verbal teenager who talks non stop! I can honestly say cochlear implantation is the single best thing we did for him.

That is why I found it troublesome to hear news that clinics in Germany and Switzerland found defects in half of cochlear implants manufactured by Advanced Bionics. According to one U.S. law firm exploring a class-action lawsuit, the defect in the implant allows moisture to enter and short-circuit the electronics, which requires removal and replacement.

Surgery is necessary to replace a cochlear implant and that means months of readapting to the new device. And, of course, there are risks to removing and replacing damaged electrodes.

What is a Cochlear Implant?

A cochlear implant is not like a hearing aid that is worn behind the ear and only amplifies sound.

With a cochlear implant, a surgeon makes a small incision behind the patient’s ear to form a small hole in the portion of skull bone where the internal device will rest. A small opening in the cochlea organ is created to thread the electrode of the internal device. This device is stitched in under the skin. There is also an external processor that fits behind the ear.

Sound signals are sent from the processor to the internal device and these signals are received by the auditory nerve and directed to the brain, which interprets the signals as sound.

We couldn’t be happier with the success of Maclain’s cochlear implants. He is one of the lucky ones. But according to the Mayo Clinic, there are risks to this procedure. It can cause a loss of any remaining, unclear, natural hearing in the implanted ear. Meningitis can occur after cochlear implant surgery. As well, additional surgery may be needed to repair or replace a faulty internal device.

Complications, though rare can include:

  • infection
  • ear numbness
  • bleeding
  • facial paralysis
  • dizziness or balance issue
  • spinal fluid leak
  • diminished taste
  • new or worsened ear noise

Children as young as six months can benefit from cochlear implants. They are recommended for those who are deaf or for people who can no longer function with a hearing aid. They also work for those with types of sensorineural hearing loss like auditory neuropathy or auditory dysynchrony, which I compare to listening to a radio station that is stuck between channels. Sometimes you hear clearly, other times you don't. But, for the most part, you are just getting a mumbo-jumbo of static. If you put hearing aids on, all you are doing is amplifying that static.

Cochlear implants have been around for decades. They give people the ability to communicate and you cannot understate the significance of that.

Cochlear Implant Risks

However, while the technology is amazing, a device failure can be quite traumatic. We are talking about invasive surgery to begin with. That comes with inherent risks. Once it is determined that a device has failed, which is not always as obvious as it may seem, then there is the additional risk that comes with further surgical procedures to remove and possibly replace the device.

When things do go wrong, people can be left to make a devastatingly difficult choice. In my work with people with disabilities I have come across those whose experience with cochlear implantations have not been as positive as ours. That it is heartbreaking. I know parents whose child has suffered through so many complications that they finally decided not to have the devices re-implanted for fear of putting them through further hardship. That is upsetting because now that child will no longer be able to hear.

Many of these complications are infection-driven and lead to such issues as severe migraines. And what is especially sad is that some of these children are non-verbal and unable to express what they are going through. These kids might be in pain, they might be having all sorts of issues, but it can take time to determine what is actually happening and if the cochlear implant is the problem.

It can be frustrating when there is a problem with these devices. Suddenly people can no longer hear things the way they used to, the sound may be distorted, or the device may be creating feedback or sounds that are not true sounds.

My family had the good fortune to benefit from cochlear implantation. But with every new medical and scientific advancement, there is the chance that something can go wrong. When it does, it is important that those who are suffering receive the help they need.

At Gluckstein Lawyers, our personal injury law firm is here to provide help and guidance if you or anyone you know has experienced complications due to a cochlear implant failure. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to reach out to one of our personal injury lawyers and contact us.


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