Cochlear implants give sound to area three-year-old

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Lucas loves to name objects, letters, and colors in picture books. He is beginning to transition from learning primarily through sign language to learning vocally. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

A Garnavillo boy born without the ability to hear is now dancing and singing along with the radio. 

Lucas Sadewasser, now almost three, received cochlear implants about 18 months ago, and he’s surprising those around him with his progress. 

A cochlear implant is an electronic device that partially restores hearing for people who have severe hearing loss and don't benefit from hearing aids. The implant consists of an external processor, which sits behind the ear; and a second portion, a receiver, that is surgically placed under the skin. 

A microphone on the external portion picks up sounds from the environment. The speech processor selects and arranges these sounds and transmits sound signals to the internal receiver. There, sound signals are converted into electric impulses and sent via the auditory nerve to the brain, where they are interpreted as a form of hearing. 

While a cochlear implant does not restore normal hearing, it can give a deaf person a useful representation of sounds and help him or her to understand speech. Results vary from person to person, but according to Mayo Clinic, most patients report improved ability to hear speech without needing visual cues and to recognize normal, everyday environmental sounds; the ability to hear soft sounds; and the ability to locate the sources of sound.

It takes time and training to learn and interpret the signals transmitted from a cochlear implant. According to parents Amy (Howard) Sadewasser and Noah Sadewasser, Lucas can speak 187 words. “He learns new words best when signing, but now he’s gravitating toward learning vocally first,” said Amy. “He definitely soaks everything in.”

Like any three-year-old, Lucas loves to point out objects in picture books and say their names. He counts to ten, recognizes and speaks color names and letters, and practices sounds with a special game of cones and hidden rewards. Each of several paper cones have one of the six sounds that make up words written and pictured on them. A train is pictured with the ‘ch’ sound, a sleeping child is pictured with the ‘sh’ sound, and other home-made cones address Lucas’ specific needs. “He was having trouble differentiating between mouse and house,” said Amy, pointing to two cones that represent those words. 

Lucas covers his eyes while his mom hides a Skittle beneath one of the paper cones. When he opens them, she makes the sound corresponding to the cone she wants him to choose. When she says, “Moo!” he picks up the cone featuring a cow and grins at the treat underneath. 

Twice a week, Lucas gets special visitors who track his progress and give him assignments to help him reach language milestones. His nanny, Valerie Schmitt, uses programs on an iPad with him to help complete the assignments. Last week, Lucas visited the preschool classroom at Clayton Ridge and met Nicole Hampton, who will be his teacher two days a week as soon as he turns three. When Lucas enters school, his teachers will wear microphones that report to speakers placed near him. 

“His social skills and motor skills are where they should be,” Amy explains, noting that he’s very in-tune with his sister, Alyssa, who’s in first grade, and loves to wrestle with five-year-old brother Kyle. When he’s running around or roughhousing, Lucas takes off his outer ‘ears.’ He also takes them off to sleep and to avoid loud sounds, like the vacuum. 

Doctors told the Sadewassers their son would likely need to have the internal device replaced as an adult. The external processors are under warranty for ten years – which is an advantage for the three-year-old wearer. “We’ve broken quite a few pieces,” chuckles Amy. When the external parts get lost or broken, the company sends replacement parts at no charge. 

The Press first interviewed Lucas's parents in 2013, three months after he received the implants. At that time, he was just beginning to mimic sounds and respond to his name. Today, Lucas’ parents describe him as smiley and independent. Amy says proudly, “He's made a lot of progress since then.”

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