Ashley Yount Can't Hear You

When their daughter was ten months old, Julie and Greg Yount learned that she was profoundly deaf -- a diagnosis that forced them to confront profound questions of culture and identity

When Rose was ready, the group crammed into her little office. One wall was covered with kids' photos. On close inspection, you could see that all were wearing cochlear implants.

As Greg set up a tripod for the family video camera, Rose explained that today, she'd be testing half the electrodes in Ashley's implant, to see how many worked and to get a baseline reading so that the implant could be tuned to Ashley's liking; tomorrow, she'd test the other half. She explained that, to a new implant user, sound is startling and loud. Today, she'd set the processing unit to a relatively quiet, comfortable level. Over the next few days, as Ashley learned to deal with the data flooding her brain, Rose would gradually turn up the volume.

She produced the cochlear processor, the dark gray box that looks like a Walkman, plus its attendant mike. Julie compared the full-size implant to the stuffed lion's: "That one's Ashley's," Julie signed. "It's for you." Ashley, sitting at a child-size table beside Rose's desk, looked more interested in the toys Rose keeps in her office.

Rose showed them how to put on the implant's outer pieces, hooking the mike over Ashley's ear, then holding the round transmitter near the spot where the implant lay under Ashley's scalp. Each of the two parts contains a magnet, and when Rose let go of the external piece, it seemed to slide itself into place -- an odd, science-fictiony movement.

Rose, though, wasn't going to test the outer components. Instead of using the implant's mike, she used her computer setup to send electricity directly to the implant's individual electrodes. That way, she could tell whether each was working.

She started with Electrode 16. Because the electrodes stimulate different areas of the cochlea, they each trigger a different pitch; Electrode 1 is the highest, Electrode 22, the lowest.

The room grew quiet. Rose explained that it was okay to talk. Because the microphone on Ashley's implant was turned off, she couldn't be distracted by sounds in the room. All she would hear was a pure tone, generated electrically by Rose's machine -- a tone detectable to no one else in the room.

Rose explained that she was starting quietly at first; she didn't want to startle Ashley. She slowly turned up the volume. The machine's levels, she explained, ranged from 0 all the way up to 239. "Cool," Greg said.

At 72, Ashley touched her ear. Maybe she'd heard something; maybe not.
Denise reached to hold Jerry's hand. Julie kept her eyes locked on Ashley.
At 80, Ashley stopped playing. Rose noted that she was acting a bit different -- probably, she'd heard something.

Rose moved onto another electrode. At 90, she couldn't tell whether Ashley heard anything. She turned it to 95, then 100. "Crank that baby up!" said Greg.

Ashley grew quiet and sucked her finger.
At 115, her face suddenly crumpled. For the first time in her life, a sound was too loud. She began to cry.

The room erupted into brief, relieved laughter. Ashley had heard. Absolutely. Positively. She was on her way to a life among the hearing.

At the end of the appointment, Rose turned the implant on. Ashley wore it home, listening all the way to the voices of the people who love her.

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