Mother hoping implant brings baby’s voice|[04/10/07]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Ramona Miles watched her 9-month-old daughter take her first steps last week.

In about six weeks, Miles might be able to use more than just her eyes to experience her daughter’s years of discovery.

The 42-year-old management clerk for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District Headquarters has been deaf since birth. Since attending Jackson’s renowned Magnolia Speech School, communication with the world around her has been a process of sharp lip-reading skills and a specialized home telephone and monitor through which she receives typed messages from those who reach her.

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But this morning, Ramona was at River Oaks Hospital in Jackson undergoing surgery to have a cochlear implant to enhance her hearing – a procedure she and her husband, Tommy Miles, said was driven by the arrival of little Dakota Leah-Marie Miles.

&#8220She means everything to us,” Tommy Miles said. &#8220Sometimes, she’ll get to clapping and gets excited to see us.”

Ramona has about 10 percent of an adult’s normal level of hearing, but can still communicate with speech. Despite a year’s worth of reservations since their wedding about having the surgery, Ramona said she just wants to hear her daughter’s voice.

&#8220She makes me strong,” she said. &#8220I’ll say, ‘You stole my heart, you!’”

Cochlear implants are small, electronic devices that stimulate any functioning auditory nerves inside the cochlea, the snail-shell-like structure in the inner ear. Often, it is called simply a bionic ear and features a microphone, speech processor and transmitter as external parts resembling a traditional hearing aid that fits behind the ear. Ramona’s procedure will be performed by Dr. James R. House III and will be fitted in her right ear.

In preliminary visits to the ear clinic at St. Dominic’s Hospital in Jackson, the Mileses have been told Ramona’s device will come with upgrades over traditional models that will filter out background noise and wind.

&#8220There may be a delay between what you say and her hearing it,” Tommy Miles said.

When conditions are right, the implant can give people who have not heard normally a basic understanding of speech and what is going on around them.

The time frame for the steps Ramona’s surgery is set for is customary – a check of fluids inside her right ear and full activation of the device within six weeks.

In the United States, the cost associated with the surgery can run as high as $80,000 – in the Mileses’ case, $83,000 – including the evaluation phase, hardware, the surgery itself and rehabilitation. Medical insurance has been a godsend, the Mileses said, but the couple won’t know the full scope of its coverage for some time.

To that end, her Corps co-workers have chipped in about $2,000, they said.

Employees at the Corps contributed money toward Ramona’s surgery via their Christmas Committee last year.

&#8220The Corps has done more than enough,” Tommy Miles said.

Ramona, a Vicksburg native, and Tommy, a construction worker and native of Kemper County in east Mississippi, said family members on both sides are excited at the prospect of Ramona’s surgery resulting in a fuller parental experience.

&#8220They thought we’d just talk about having the surgery forever. Instead, we’re getting it done,” Tommy said.

The first direct stimulation of an acoustic nerve with an electrode was performed in the 1950s by French-Algerian surgeons Andre Djourno and Charles Eyries, who placed wires on nerves exposed during an operation.

In 1969, Dr. William House (no relation to today’s surgeon) co-created the first wearable cochlear implant with Jack Urban. In 1978, Rod Saunders of Melbourne, Australia became the first person worldwide to receive a multi-channel cochlear implant. Six years later, the Australian cochlear implant was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for implantation into adults, with its use in children beginning in 1990.

About 100,000 people worldwide have received the devices through surgery, most of them in developed countries due to the cost. An estimated 3,000 of the worldwide total have had bilateral implants, performed on each cochlea.