RALEIGH, N.C. — By 1999, 2-year-old children were the youngest to receive a cochlear implant, but two years of silence put those children far behind others in their ability to speak and understand oral language. That is why the Allen family became national pioneers for earlier implant surgery.
By December 1999, 7-month-old Evan Allen spent his whole life in silence. Then, his new cochlear implant tickled his ears. Evan's older sister, Bethany, got her cochlear implant when she was 11 months old.
The Allen children were born without the hearing nerve endings in the ear's cochlea. The implant works through an external microphone filtered through a battery-powered processor. A magnet makes contact with an implant under the scalp which is attached to a coil that fits inside the cochlea. The question was whether the device would work in children so young.
"The earlier, the better. You have a window of opportunity in which to learn spoken language and the earlier you intervene in that window of opportunity, the better for the children," said Caroline Brown, director of the CCCDP, a UNC clinic for children with cochlear implants.
Now six years later, Evan and Bethany are having their implant processors fine-tuned at CCCDP. Plus, their 4-year-old brother, Layton, also has an implant. Each of them are doing just fine.
"Her (Bethany) having an implant under the age of a year helped her to be put on the right track," said Stacy Allen, the children's mother.
Over the eight years since Bethany received her implant, the technology has improved. The devices are smaller, faster and more efficient.
"And so they really are a unique family in that they have sort of three generations of this technology," said UNC implant audiologist Jennifer Weinstock.
Some implant patients now get the device -- the microphone and processor come in one piece over the ear. But technology cannot replace training to help children distinguish between the slightest sound variations and communicate and learn as well as all the other children around them.
On Thursday, the WRAL Health Team will see how well the Allen children do in school in mainstream classes.