Since Kathleen had experienced a healthy pregnancy, she and her husband Mike were expecting a healthy baby girl.
“Out she popped, and everything was perfect,” Kathleen recalls. “When she failed her newborn screening test, we weren’t that concerned. We knew that babies could fail that test for a number of reasons, even if they have no hearing problems.”
Two weeks later during a visit with her pediatrician, Gracie failed another hearing test. Her family was referred to Providence Speech and Hearing Center.
More testing provided a diagnosis: Gracie had severe to profound bilateral hearing loss. What hearing ability she did have would not be enough to allow her to speak and learn language.
“When I realized my daughter couldn’t even hear me tell her that I love her, I was a mess,” Kathleen recalls. “It felt like the world was falling apart in that moment.”
Gracie tried hearing aids, and although she was finally able to hear her parents say her name, the hearing aids were not enough to compensate for her hearing loss.
Since Kathleen is a special education teacher, she was already familiar with cochlear implants—surgically implanted devices that offer the hope of gaining the ability to sense sound.
“Deciding to pursue cochlear implants was a pretty easy decision,” says Mike. “We didn’t really give it a second thought. As a parent, you just want to give your kid every opportunity possible—especially the chance to hear.”
The cochlear implant artificially stimulates the inner ear area with electrical signals, which sends those signals to the auditory nerve, letting a person hear. The surgery is safest in most children around one year of age.
Meanwhile, Kathleen and Mike had been teaching sign language to Gracie and her older sister.
A few months after Gracie’s first birthday, she underwent bilateral cochlear implantation surgery at CHOC Hospital with pediatric otolaryngologist (ENT) Dr. Nguyen Pham.
“When I first met Dr. Pham, I felt like I had known him forever,” Kathleen says. “He answered every single question we had and was honest with us throughout the process.”
Kathleen knew the benefits for Gracie outweighed the potential complications that come with surgery, but as a parent, she was naturally worried about her child’s well-being.
“Every time I saw Dr. Pham I was frantic, and he was always so calming. It was nice to have that reassurance,” Kathleen says. “Dr. Pham is a miracle worker.”
Surgery went perfectly, and Gracie spent just one night in the hospital. A few weeks later it was time to officially activate her cochlear implants.
Even though Kathleen had faith the cochlear implants would work, but she was still anxious for activation day.
“Activation day was amazing and terrifying at the same time,” she recalls. “Everyone said not to worry, but I thought it might be too good to be true. I just kept thinking, ‘How could this little device be the thing that allows my baby to hear?’”
As soon as the cochlear implants were activated, Gracie’s face lit up and she pointed to her ears. Her parents let out a sigh of relief. When they took her home, they found the most joy in the small, mundane sounds around their house. Gracie could finally hear the front door open, the dog bark, and most importantly—her parents say I love you.
Before a child with cochlear implants will begin talking, they need time to get comfortable wearing their implants and undergo speech therapy. For Gracie, that time was just a few weeks. She still undergoes speech therapy twice per week, once at Providence Speech and Hearing Center and once at home.
To say Gracie is thriving is an understatement, according to Kathleen. Not only does Gracie talk and sing non-stop with her big sister Tess, but she mastered her ABC’s just shy of her second birthday. Her language skills now exceed most normal hearing children. Gracie loves going to Disneyland, and her family appreciates any opportunity to spread education about cochlear implants to inquisitive people they meet.
Gracie’s family has much to celebrate this year, but there’s something a few years down the road that Kathleen is most excited for.
“I am excited for her to go to kindergarten at a typical school. You have all these visions of your kids growing up, and for me to just drop my daughters off at one school is a big thing.”
For more on CHOC’s otolaryngology program