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LIJ docs get teens to listen with ear implant surgeries

It was only last year that Rachel and Todd Schulbaum, two Long Island teenagers, could not hear sounds that many of their friends took for granted or considered mundane: the sound of a dog barking, a toilet flushing, the distinct voice of a parent calling.

But thanks to a relatively new device called a cochlear implant that was placed in their ears in late December during surgery at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, the two are now developing the ability to hear those small elements of life.

“I heard enough before to communicate with some people but not all,” Rachel Schulbaum, 16, said. “We can focus better in life and school,” Todd Schulbaum, 13, added.

The the Schulbaum teens and their parents came to LIJ’s Hearing and Speech Center last Thursday to be serenaded by Karen Mason, a Broadway performer, and to help publicize the fact that residents of Queens and Long Island do not have to go to Manhattan any longer to receive a cochlear ear implant.

“I think it’s important for Long Islanders to recognize the options here are as good as in the city if not better,” said Linda Schulbaum, the children’s mother.

Although their parents have no hearing problems, both Rachel and Todd Schulbaum were born partially deaf. They represent two of the 750,000 Americans suffering from profound hearing impairment, doctors at the center said. But for those over the age of 12 months with impairment in both ears, cochlear implants may offer at least some hearing, if not a full range, the doctors said.

Most people suffer from hearing impairment because the hairs inside the cochlea of their ears do not work, the doctors said. Those hairs are responsible for stimulating the auditory nerve, a job which the implant takes over.

Behind each ear, Rachel and Todd Schulbaum wear a transmitter that is connected to the electronic stimulator and which looks like an overly thick earpiece for a pair of glasses.

The teens received the implant during two separate four-hour surgeries performed on the same day. They then returned to the center one month later to have the implant turned on, the standard procedure.

Rachel received her implant first, appropriate given it was she who first considered the idea after witnessing the effect it had on two friends who had the procedure done.

“I saw how well they were doing, the progress they made,” she said. She then convinced her brother and her parents to go along with the idea.

“At first I wasn’t sure,” Todd Schulbaum said, although he later decided he too wanted the surgery.

But while the operation may constitute a technological marvel, doctors said the difficult part still lies ahead for the teens. While their brains are receiving sound signals, thanks to the stimulator, they need to be trained to understand how to process the information. That is why the doctors said younger patients had a better chance with the operation.

For the elderly, “we can give them noise but their brain’s never going to understand that noise,” said Dr. Andrea Vambutas, director of LIJ’s cochlear program and the surgeon who implanted the devices in the Schulbaums.

The first cochlear implant at LIJ’s Hearing and Speech Center was performed in 2001, and during the two years that followed doctors performed 20 such operations, Vambutas said. This year alone 20 implants will take place, she said.

Before receiving the implants, the Schulbaums wore hearing aids most of their lives, which provided only limited hearing, doctors said. The teens had to rely on oral speech and sign language and use an interpreter at school, something they must still do until their brains are fully trained.

“It’s like being born again,” said their father, Neil Schulbaum.

Both teens said that at school their friends have been supportive, although Rachel Schulbaum reported that they kept asking her, “Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” a la the Verizon commercial.

Some critics of cochlear implants have said the surgery implies that deaf people are broken and need to be fixed and that it robs the deaf of their culture and sense of community.

But the Schulbaum teens said they had been friends with those who always could hear and had never been in special education, and so therefore did not really have any community to miss. They continue to take advanced placement classes and have played on sports teams and appeared in drama club productions, Rachel Schulbaum with just a microphone, her brother with an interpreter.

“It’s unusual to have children who were born deaf to be as academically successful as they have been,” said Dr. Lynn Spivak, director of LIJ’s Hearing and Speech Center.

Both teens said there is no question the implants have already improved the quality of their lives.

“I can hear water dripping, the toilet flushing,” Rachel Schulbaum said. “I can hear everything.”

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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