Sounds of Silence
February 6, 2012 9:03 PM

State Journal Register
Springfield, Illinois -- Oct 1, 1999 --

Ellie Tjelmeland had never heard her mother's voice.

At 18 months of age, she couldn't say mamma or daddy or speak her own name. Born profoundly deaf, Ellie had never learned to speak. 

She wore the most powerful hearing aids available, one in each ear, but she could barely hear anything, say her parents, Joel and Michelle Tjelmeland (the name, Norwegian, is pronounced Chum-land). She could form sounds but wasn't learning to talk. Infants learn speech by listening to it, but Ellie could not hear the voices of her mother and father. 

Now, thanks to her parents' determination and the skill of a team of doctors and speech specialists, Ellie can hear sounds, and there's an excellent chance she will learn to speak. The key to that transformation is a tiny device called a cochlear implant.  

Hearing bad news  

Exactly why Ellie is deaf isn't known, but her doctors suspect that the cause is congenital. 

Her mother, Michelle, 25, also suffers from deafness that began in childhood. Michelle Tjelmeland wears a hearing aid in both ears, and her speech has a slurred, slightly buzzing quality, probably the result of poor hearing when she was learning to speak. 

A former teacher at Franklin Middle School, Michelle gave up teaching after Ellie's birth. She and husband Joel, 32, suspected from the beginning that something was wrong with Ellie's hearing. 

"I wanted her hearing tested when she was born, but for some reason that wasn't followed up on," Michelle remembers. 

Figuring out how well an infant hears is always tricky even for professionals, but Michelle and Joel kept picking up cues that something was amiss with Ellie's hearing. 

"She was so impervious to noise that it began to worry me," recalls Michelle. "Loud noises didn't seem to bother her at all. Nothing scared her."  

Concerned, the Tjelmelands took their daughter, then 2 months old, for a hearing test. The results should have been reassuring. "They told us there was nothing wrong," Michelle says. A later test was interpreted as showing a mild hearing loss. 

Despite the scientific testing, the sophisticated equipment, the assurances of doctors, the Tjelmelands weren't convinced. Why wasn't their daughter responding to their voices? 

One day, Michelle recalls, she decided to do her own test of her daughter's hearing.

"I banged a pot and pan together just over her head. She never even woke up. That didn't correlate with a 'mild hearing loss,'` she says. 

Not very scientific, perhaps, but very convincing. 

From then on, Michelle and Joel were on a crusade - find out what was wrong and what could be done to fix it. 

Hearing bad news 

About four months ago, they took Ellie to Louisiana State University for hearing tests. These confirmed the Tjelmeland's worst suspicions. Ellie was profoundly deaf. 

"They said she had essentially no hearing," Michelle recalls.

Specialists at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine fitted her for the most powerful hearing aids on the market. They took measurements, made molds of her ears and generally did everything they could to give her the best technology. 

But getting an infant to wear hearing aids isn't easy. And as Ellie grew, they had to be refitted to her ears constantly. "It was very hard to fit her because she was growing so fast," Michelle says. "Every time she needed new shoes, she needed a new fitting." 

Michelle Tjelmeland wanted her daughter to learn to speak normally, and with Ellie's level of hearing impairment, she feared that wouldn't happen. 

"Even with the best hearing aids, she would never learn to speak," says Michelle. She and Joel kept searching for an alternative. Enter Dr. Michael Novak. 

A Carle Clinic otolaryngologist - a surgeon who specializes in the ears, nose and throat - Novak is a short, slender man of about 45. His neat, trim appearance, small, well-manicured hands and controlled, measured way of speaking all seem to fit the mold of a surgeon.

Trained at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, he moved to Urbana and joined Carle about 18 years ago. A few years later, he began working with a new, and then revolutionary technology for aiding the deaf, called the cochlear (coke-lee-er) implant. 

The cochlea is a snail-shell-shaped organ buried deep in the ear. Inside it are tiny canals filled with fluid and lined with microscopic structures called hair cells. These are one of the keys to human hearing, says Novak, and they are the reason why the cochlear implant helps kids like Ellie to hear.

Vibrations transmitted from the eardrum pass through the bones of the ear into the cochlea. The vibrations stimulate the hair cells and they in turn stimulate the auditory nerve, explains Novak. Anything that interferes with that progression diminishes hearing. 

"Ellie's hearing loss is probably congenital," Novak speculates. "Nearly one-half of hearing loss in young children is inherited." 

Conventional hearing aids work by amplifying sounds. From the old ear trumpet to the latest digital models, they're basically an attempt to power sound past the blockage.

The cochlear implant, by contrast, works by stimulating the hair cells in the cochlea directly. 

The implant itself is a slender thread of wire not much bigger around than a strand of spaghetti. Along its length are electrodes, which can transmit signals at different wavelengths, explains Novak. 

The implant is connected to a central microprocessor - a computer brain - which picks up incoming sound waves, converts them to digital impulses and directs them to the implant's electrodes. The electrodes fire, stimulating the cochlear hair cells, which pass the impulses up the auditory nerve to the area of the brain that interprets sound. 

But there's a daunting element to this technology. Ordinary hearing aids just sit behind the ear. A cochlear implant requires a surgeon to open the skull, uncover the cochlea and thread the implant into place. Novak has done the procedure hundreds of times; but the Tjelmelands have only one child. And she's only 18 months old. 

Braving the fix  

It is 6 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 24. Michelle, Joel and Ellie Tjelmeland arrive at Carle Hospital in Urbana. They seem to have brought the whole family with them. Both sets of grandparents are in attendance as are Michelle's sister, Melissa and one of Melissa's college chums. Movie and still cameras are in evidence. 

Michelle and Joel seem cheerful, but beneath the anticipation, both are tense. This is the first step toward a new life for Ellie, a life in which she will have both feet firmly in the hearing world. But the step is a big one. The only one who doesn't appear apprehensive is Ellie herself. Despite the strange and somewhat menacing atmosphere of the hospital, she's playful. 

They take Ellie to a waiting room for same day surgery. Amazingly, if all goes well, the Tjelmelands will take Ellie home that afternoon. A nurse takes Ellie's vital signs, then squirts a dose of preoperative medication into her mouth. The Tjelmelands are keeping their own record of the day. They have a video camera and a digital still camera, and they take turns recording what's happening to their daughter. Every time the camera points her way, Ellie responds with a grin. 

"With all this taping she's going to think it's Christmas morning," cracks one of the nurses. 

"Well, it is," answers Michelle. "It's going to change the rest of her life." 

Michelle and Joel get Ellie into a special gown that resembles a pair of pajamas. Novak's nurse, Shirley Sharp, breezes in to check on Ellie and gives her a tiny stuffed cougar with "Especially for Ellie, your Clarion cougar" written on it. Ellie plays with it delightedly.

Sharp has a quick reassuring word with both parents, then hustles off to scrub for the coming operation. Michelle and Joel take Ellie to a playroom while they wait for the medication to take effect. 

After a few minutes, Novak makes an appearance. The surgery will take about an hour, he tells them. And don't worry, he says. "Just assume I'm doing fine," he tells them. "As soon as I'm done, I'll come out and find you guys." 

Michelle muses on what it must be like to know how to do what Novak does. "How fun it would be to be able to change someone's life like that," she says. 

Ellie crawls around the playroom, seemingly determined to touch everything at least once. Michelle and Joel never take their eyes off her. Michelle can't seem to touch her enough. Ellie looks at her aunt, Melissa, and points toward her mouth, sign language for "I'm hungry." Melissa shakes her head, "No." This close to surgery, Ellie can't have anything to eat or drink. 

Ellie points to her mouth again and nods her head up and down vigorously. 

She wants food. 

Dianne Hammes, a speech therapist who has worked with Ellie for the past ine months and will be with her in surgery, talks with Michelle and Joel and via sign language, with Ellie. The Tjelmelands feel close to Hammes, who has a deaf brother. 

"She somewhat understands what we were going through as parents trying to evaluate all the options," says Michelle. 

At around 8:15, Shirley Sharp pokes her head around the playroom door: "We're ready," she says. Hammes takes Ellie in her arms and walks toward the operating room. Ellie is subdued; she's finally figured out that something is going on. 

In the operating room, a frightened Ellie begins to cry. But the nurses and the anesthetist have done this many times. They place a mask over Ellie's face and tell her to breathe in and out. Within seconds, her cries have quieted down; she's unconscious. A tube in her windpipe connects her to a machine that will keep her anesthetized during surgery and provide her with oxygen. 

By 8:30, Ellie is positioned for surgery and covered with a special blanket to keep her body temperature steady. In the background, the songs of Sheryl Crow's "Globe Sessions" form a melodic counterpoint to the mechanical beeping and hissing made by the medical machines. 

Novak shaves Ellie's head; then using a marking pen, he plots a series of blue points in the skin behind Ellie's right ear - the arc of the incision he'll make. 

There's sureness in Novak's movements that bespeak experience. He's done more than 200 of these operations. Kids as young as Ellie are unusual but not unheard of, he says. In fact, Novak has operated on a youngster only 9 months old.

"Carle is one of the big national centers for doing cochlear implants," he says. "We've been doing them for about as long as anyone." 

Satisfied that he has marked the incision area precisely, Novak goes off to scrub for surgery. Sharp scrubs with disinfectant the area marked on Ellie's scalp, leaving a bright orange-brown swath along the right side of the child's head. 

Novak returns and pulls a stool up to Ellie's head. At eight minutes before 9 a.m., his foot tapping to the beat of Sheryl Crow, he makes the first incision. A monitor relays the reassuringly steady rhythm of Ellie's heart at 134 beats per minute. 

Novak's operating room technician, Mike Hammer, passes a steady stream of instruments to the surgeon. Novak and Hammer have done more than 150 of these operations together. Each is attuned to the other's rhythm. 

Cutting through skin and subcutaneous tissue, Novak exposes the mastoid bone. A special cauterizing scalpel uses heat to seal off tiny blood vessels, minimizing bleeding and filling the surgery with the acrid smell of burned flesh. The mastoid bone looks honeycombed inside because it's filled with air sacs, Novak explains.

Using a special device that sounds remarkably like a dental drill, Novak shaves off bits of bone to get to the cochlea. Once it's uncovered, he drills a hole in it. Taking the implant, he threads it with a special tool into the inner labyrinth of the organ. 

The device has 16 electrodes in it, he says. Electrodes will go into different regions of the cochlea and stimulate hair cells there in a variety of combinations, creating a range of sound perceptions, he says. 

Adults who've had implants say speech at first sounds tinny and mechanical, like a robot speaking, says Novak. How a child Ellie's age will perceive the brave new world of sounds is anyone's guess.  

Ellie will need a month of recovery before returning to Carle to get her implant hooked up to its computer brain, says Novak. 

Novak shaves a portion of the mastoid bone into the shape of the receiver end of the implant, which will rest on that spot, just underneath Ellie's scalp. He also shaves a groove to carry the implant on its course down into the brain. On the outside of the scalp will sit a headpiece with a microphone in it. Magnets in both will hold the microphone in place. From the microphone, a wire will run to a microprocessor that Ellie will wear in a special harness. 

The sound processor picks up environmental sounds such as speech and transmits them to the microphone, which passes them to the receiver below Ellie's scalp. It sends the signals along to the electrodes, which fire in sequence and stimulate cochlear hair cells. The result will be sounds that Ellie eventually will learn to interpret.

Novak takes a flap of tissue from the incision on Ellie's scalp and sews it in place over the hole he made over the cochlea. Then, at 9:40 a.m., Novak begins sewing the implant in place. At just before 10, he tests the device to make sure its electrodes respond. Everything checks out. 

By a little past 10, Ellie is all sewn up and beginning to stir. Even as Novak closes the incision in Ellie's head, the anesthetist has been changing the mix of gases that she breathes, easing her return to consciousness. 

The final touch is a bit of stuff called dermabond, sort of medical Super Glue. "It helps hold the incision together," says Novak. "As soon as her hair grows back a little, you'll hardly know we were there." 

By 10:30, Ellie, her head swathed in gauze, is in the recovery room, with an oxygen mask clamped on her face. Novak walks to the waiting area where the Tjelmelands and family have waited nervously for a little more than an hour. "She's in the recovery room," he tells them. "She's waking up and doing fine." 

The relief is almost palpable, and everyone begins talking at once, jostling to shake Novak's hand. There are tears in more than a few eyes. 

"The implant is working just like it should," Novak continues. "Everything went just like it's supposed to. Now, it's just a matter of letting it heal." 

Joel and Michelle follow Novak to recovery, where Michelle sits in a chair. A nurse places the still sedated Ellie in her arms. Michelle cries silently. Nurses bustle in and out, sometimes taking the child's temperature or blood pressure. Whenever anyone disturbs her, Ellie lifts her head and begins to cry. As soon as they leave, she burrows back down into her mother's arms. 

She's very sleepy. 

Nurse Amy Matthews takes out Ellie's intravenous line and gives Michelle and Joel some final instructions. "She may not be hungry," Matthews tells them, "and she may be a bit crabby. That's to be expected." 

At 12:40 p.m., Joel Tjelmeland carries his sleeping daughter out to the family car. He and his wife return to Springfield. Phase one is complete.

In a month, they'll be back for phase two - when Ellie hears her first sounds through the implant. 

A moment of truth  

It's 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 23. Carried in her father's arms, Ellie Tjelmeland enters Carle Hearing Services. Once again, the entire family is on hand.  

If the operating suite is Novak's natural habitat, these offices with their soundproofed rooms and testing devices are home base for the audiologists. 

Hammes works here, and she comes out to greet them and lead the way to the testing area. Ellie, her mom and dad, Hammes and another audiologist, Lee Ann Rotz, are crammed into a small room. Rotz works at a laptop computer, which she'll use to stimulate the electrodes in Ellie's implant. It's a test, to see if they're working and to observe Ellie's responses. 

Novak is also on hand. This is a charged moment for him, too, the culmination of the work begun a month ago. 

The atmosphere is loaded with high expectations. Ellie's grandparents and her aunt and a few friends cram into an observation room adjacent to the test area. Speaking with one of Ellie's grandparents, Novak does his best to tone down expectations a bit. "Some kids seem to respond right away, and some don't," he says gently. 

Ellie has had some sound through her hearing aids, but chances are what she hears through the implant won't have any meaning, he says. It's going to be a learning process for all concerned. 

Rotz plugs one end of a wire into the back of the laptop. The other end goes into the microprocessor. 

With everything hooked up, Rotz pushes a key on the laptop to generate a pulse that causes an electrode in Ellie's implant to fire off. Instantly, Ellie looks up. 

"Yes, that's good, beep, beep, beep," says Rotz, while signing to Ellie. The child returns to her playing. Each time Rotz stimulates one of the electrodes in the implant, Ellie freezes and looks directly at Rotz, who is watching her intently for signs that she's hearing. For close to an hour, she generates a series of pulses, stimulating electrodes at different frequencies and recording the results. 

For all the technology, it's a subtle process, one that relies heavily on the observations and skills of Hammes and Rotz. Both watch Ellie carefully to see if she's hearing anything, all the while not trying not to give away too many cues as to what reaction they're looking for. Together, they've hooked up more than 130 children to cochlear implants. They've seen all kinds of initial reactions to the sounds, says Rotz. Some kids don't respond at all; sound scares some others, she says. 

Ellie is doing well. 

"She's having an excellent response," Rotz tells Michelle and Joel. 

Once the initial testing is done, Rotz hooks up Ellie's implant to the microprocessor. No more computer-generated tones. The sounds Ellie hears from this point on will be the sounds of life going on around her, the sounds of her parents' voices. 

Hammes turns the volume on the microprocessor way down. If it's too loud at first, it might well scare her. It does and Ellie starts to cry. Hammes quickly distracts her with a game and they lower the volume on the processor further. 

They try again. Michelle calls her daughter's name, but Ellie doesn't even look up. 

"I don't think we've ever had a kid turn to her name," says Rotz, trying to reassure her. 

"I don't think she even knows her name," Michelle replies.

Gradually, Ellie adjusts to the sounds of the outside world. Over the coming weeks, her parents will adjust the volume upward, until she becomes acclimated to hearing. 

Michelle and Joel know there is a lot of work to do. Ellie is way behind her age mates in learning spoken language, although she already knows more than 30 words in sign language. Ellie will keep coming to Carle in the coming year to learn to speak. 

Ellie wears the microprocessor in a special harness that fits over her shirt. On it is a pouch with a Velcro flap to hold the calculator-sized

computer brain in place. A microphone, connected by wire to the microprocessor, sits tucked behind Ellie's right ear on a spot directly over the head of the cochlear implant. Magnets in both hold the microphone in place.

Michelle Tjelmeland faces some decisions about her own hearing, which is continuing to deteriorate. She has a hard time hearing the telephone. She says she's thinking seriously about having a cochlear implant herself in the future. 

But for now, the focus is on Ellie. Initially, at least, they'll go back to Carle weekly for so called "mapping sessions" in which a computer programs the implant to Ellie's specific level of hearing loss. 

For example, Ellie has no hearing at all in the high-pitched sounds, so the device is programmed to make up for that in different environments. It could take a year before the implant is fully adjusted. 

It's worth the effort, Michelle says. "I want the first voice she hears to be mine saying, `I love you.'`


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Joyful Sounds
February 6, 2012 8:45 PM

State Journal Register
Springfield, Illinois -- Sep 19, 2000 --

Someday in the not-too-distant future, Ellie and Michelle Tjelmeland should be able to hear each other perfectly.

Michelle was to take her first step toward that goal today, checking into Carle Clinic in Urbana for a cochlear implant, a procedure daughter Ellie had just over a year ago.

Ellie, now 21/2 years old, has been nearly deaf since birth; her mom has been losing her hearing gradually throughout her life.

"My pregnancies definitely speeded up my hearing loss," Michelle said Monday.

Now, Ellie hears better than her mother.

"She brings me the phone when it rings and comes and gets me when the doorbell rings," Michelle said.

Since getting the implant Aug. 24, 1999, Ellie has surged ahead in language skills, her mom said. She still gets speech therapy five times a week and has begun attending day care twice weekly to help her develop age-appropriate language skills.

"She's 29 months old, and she is expressing herself like a 22-month- to 24-month-old," Michelle said. "In (understanding ability), she's functioning at the level of a 28-month-old."

Yet with only roughly 10 percent of her hearing still intact, Michelle was in danger of losing contact with the world that her daughter is newly discovering.

That as much as anything else pushed her into making the decision to get an implant.

"I'm definitely starting to feel a bit isolated," she said.

Michelle and her husband, Joel Tjelmeland, 33, were so encouraged by how well Ellie is responding to the implant, they decided Michelle should get one, too.

The cochlea is a tiny, snail-shell-shaped organ buried deep within the ear. Inside it are tiny chambers called canals, which are lined with microscopic hair cells.

Vibrations transmitted via the ear drum pass into the cochlea, where they stimulate the hair cells, in turn activating the auditory nerve.

The cochlear implant works by stimulating hair cells directly, via an electrode that a surgeon inserts into the organ. The implant, a slender wire not much bigger around than a spaghetti strand, is lined with electrodes that emit signals at varying wavelengths.

The implant is plugged into a tiny computer placed over the mastoid bone behind the ear that picks up sound waves transmitted to it from the outside. The computer breaks the sound waves into digital impulses and passes them to the electrodes on the implant.

The process won't be easy for someone Michelle's age. Although the surgery to put the implant and computer in place is done on an outpatient basis, Michelle faces a recovery period during which she may suffer from nausea, vomiting, dizziness and loss of balance. She'll also be virtually deaf until she begins to be able to process sounds from the implant.

Then her brain will have to learn to process and interpret the information it is receiving.

"They warned me that I may not be very satisfied with the implant for the first six months to nine months," Michelle said.

But in the long run, she thinks it'll all be worth it.

"I want to be able to hear the same things that Ellie is hearing so I can explain them to her," she said.

And she wants to get back to the old self that faced the world so confidently before sound began to fade away.

"I've definitely lost a lot of self-esteem," Michelle said. "I'm ready to get that back."  

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Hear, Hear
February 6, 2012 8:43 PM

State Journal Register
Springfield, Illinois -- Apr 8, 2002 --

Ellie Tjelmeland can hear every word her mother says.

And her mom, Michelle, can hear Ellie's every response.

Isn't science wonderful?

Four-year-old Ellie and her mother, Michelle Tjelmeland, 28, both suffer from the same congenital hearing loss. When Ellie was born, she was virtually deaf, according to Michelle and her husband Joel, 35.

"I could run the vacuum cleaner under her crib when she was sleeping," Michelle said. "She'd never even wake up."

If that wasn't bad enough, Michelle Tjelmeland suffered from the same kind of hearing loss, although it was much less advanced hearing loss than Ellie's.

Almost three years ago, Michelle and Joel reached a hopeful but scary decision: They would get Ellie a device to boost her hearing called a cochlear implant. Michelle decided something further: If Ellie's implant lived up to its advance billing, she would get one for herself.

Back then, Ellie was learning to speak using sign language and had virtually no verbal skills.

Today, Ellie can speak quite clearly and is only about six months behind children her age in verbal skills, Michelle said. This is due partly to the remarkable technology of the implant and partly to the determination of Ellie's parents to give her every shot at normal communication skills.

"What she understands is about age-appropriate," Michelle said, "but in communicating, she's still about six to eight months behind."

Michelle said she thinks that will change once Ellie gets further along in school.

"She started preschool last year, and after that we want her to go a regular school," Michelle said.

After seeing the success of her daughter's surgery, Michelle got her implant a year ago last October.

"It took about six months to get it fine-tuned," she said. "Now, my hearing gets better and better. I'm still hearing new sounds."

The cochlea is a snail-shell-shaped organ buried deep in the ear. Inside it are tiny canals filled with fluid and lined with microscopic structures called hair cells. The cells are keys to human hearing, and they are the reason cochlear implants help children such as Ellie to hear.

Vibrations transmitted from the eardrum pass through the bones of the ear into the cochlea. The vibrations stimulate the hair cells, and they in turn stimulate the auditory nerve. Anything that interferes with that progression diminishes hearing.

An implant works by stimulating the hair cells directly through a wire studded with tiny electrodes, keyed to emit signals at different frequencies. The wire, not much thicker than a strand of spaghetti, is threaded into the cochlea by an otolaryngologist - an ear, nose and throat specialist - during surgery to implant the device.

The wire gets signals from a special microprocessor, usually placed behind a person's ear. The microprocessor converts outside sounds into digital impulses that are transmitted to the implant, which converts them to signals that stimulate the hair cells.

Michelle said the sounds her implant made were at first confusing and sometimes overwhelming. "In a crowd or in a very noisy room, it was very hard to understand anything," she said.

And Ellie had her moments as well. During one of the first testing periods, when specialists at Carle Clinic in Urbana were fine-tuning the device after implantation, Ellie began to cry because the sounds were so loud.

Michelle said that as her hearing faded, she learned to read lips. Sometimes, when the background is noisy, she reverts to doing that to help her sort out what a person speaking is saying.

Eventually, though, both Ellie and her mom adjusted. Michelle said her implant has re-opened a world that was slowly fading away: the world of everyday sounds. Before, talking on the phone was a real chore, she said, because it was often hard to hear.

Today, Ellie is a normal child whose speech is clearly understandable, although her vocabulary is a bit less than that of children her age. But both Joel and Michelle Tjelmeland are convinced that, thanks to the implant, she'll catch up someday fairly soon.

"We all worked very hard to get her where she is," Michelle said. "By the time she turns five next year, she'll be ready for a regular school."

After recovery from surgery, the Tjelmelands trekked back and forth to Carle Clinic, where audiologists and other technical specialists worked to get Ellie used to hearing and get her on the road to talking. Today, Ellie gets special assistance four days a week at Rochester Elementary School.

"She'll continue to get regular audiology assistance for several years," Michelle said.

Michelle has started her own business developing Web sites for businesses and completed work for her master's degree.

She put her computer skills to use creating a Web site devoted to Ellie, called On it, she and Joel record the saga of Ellie's struggle and their work to open the hearing world to their daughter.

"It's been a long road," Michelle said. 

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Local woman finds path to happiness leads home
February 6, 2012 8:41 PM

State Journal Register
Springfield, Illinois -- Jun 20, 2003 --

Confucius says, 'Choose a job you like and you'll never have to work a day in your life.' I think that's very true," says small business owner Michelle Tjelmeland (pronounced "chum-land"). In just three years, Tjelmeland has turned her passion into an award-winning corporation, E-websmart, that allows her to do professional work at home.

E-websmart is a corporation that creates business websites and works with other partners to provide Internet-related services.

This month, E-websmart won the "Gold" award from The World Wide Web Awards Association. During June, Tjelmeland won the "Small Business Owner of the Year" award from the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce. Indeed, E-websmart and Tjelmeland have won many awards over the years.

Tjelmeland is a website developer who has worked with both small "mom-and-pop" businesses and multi-million dollar corporations. Her extensive client list includes: Lake Springfield Marina, Holiday Inn Express and many other organizations.

But just half a decade ago, she was a teacher. When her first child, Ellie, was born five years ago, she quit and concentrated on getting a master's degree online from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"During that time, I realized how much I love computers. And I found an occupation in which my disability didn't matter," says Tjelmeland, who is hearing-impaired.

She urges others to utilize their college degrees and tie in their interests. "So many people go along in life and never enjoy what they do," Tjelmeland says.

But she has followed her heart. Not surprisingly, her work began with a website for her husband Joel, a car dealer. Soon she created websites for other people and then officially went into business in 2000.

Now Tjelmeland has found a job that allows her to spend time with both her daughters, 5-year-old Ellie and 3-year-old Lucy. She usually works from her home three to four days a week, hiring a sitter to help watch the children. Her varying schedule allows her to take Ellie to school and tuck both girls in at night.

"It's ideal," says Tjelmeland. "I am able to pick and choose when I go to work. The freedom and flexibility are worth so much. I love waking up and doing what I do."

While she notes her profession is well-suited for women with children, she adds that people interested in working from home should be prepared for a challenge.

"When you work from home you have to be completely motivated," Tjelmeland says. "But I would choose my job one-hundred-thousand times again." 

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Michelle Tjemeland Wins Insprirational Deaf Person of the Year
February 6, 2012 8:39 PM

Springfield Business Journal
Springfield, Illinois -- Mar 12, 2005 --

Michelle Tjelmeland Wins First Place for Inspirational Deaf Person of the Year.

Michelle Tjelmeland, owner of Springfield-based, a Web- development and consulting firm, received first-place honors in the 2005 Oticon Focus on People Awards, held in San Diego in February.

The national awards competition, sponsored by Oticon, Inc., one of the world’s oldest and most respected hearing-aid manufacturers, chose Tjelmeland from more than 200 nominees who have proven that hearing loss does not limit a person’s ability to live a full, productive and even inspiring life. Tjelmeland was one of five award recipients.

Tjelmeland, who is profoundly deaf, was described as “an example of positive attitude and fortitude, displayed with a keen sense of humor,” by her friend Kristin Andress.

Refusing to let hearing impairment get in her way, Tjelmeland channeled her energy into raising her daughters, Ellie, age 6, who is also deaf, and Lucy, age 4, and creating She also donates her time and talents to help hearing-impaired children and their families throughout the world. Through her Web site,, Tjelmeland shares her experiences about hearing loss as an individual and mother.

She has won numerous awards over the years, including Small Business Owner of the Year by the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce, the Golden Web Award by the International Association of Web Masters & Designers and the 40 under 40 Award by the Springfield Business Journal.

Tjelmeland and her husband Joel received an all-expense-paid week vacation at Paradise Point in San Diego. Additionally, Tjelmeland received a $1000 cash prize and a $1000 check, which she will donate to Rochester Elementary, where her daughters attend school. The check will be used to purchase a traveling sign language cart available for use by all classrooms in the building.


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Local Business Woman Honored
February 6, 2012 8:38 PM

Redmond, WA -- Nov 10, 2005 --
Local Illinois Business Owner Honored With Microsoft Start Something Amazing Award
Thursday November 10, 12:00 pm ET

Bill Gates Recognizes Founder of e-websmart and the Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation for Her Unique Use of Windows Technology.

REDMOND, Wash., Nov. 10 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- After conducting a five-month nationwide search, Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT- News) today announced the five winners of its Start Something Amazing Awards, honoring Michelle Tjelmeland of Springfield, Ill., for her unique and inspiring use of Microsoft® Windows®-related technology to pursue her passions of building Web sites and helping families affected by hearing loss. Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates will meet with Tjelmeland today at Microsoft's headquarters, where he will present her with the award for the Culture & Community category and discuss how she integrates technology into the operation of her Web-development business, e-websmart (, and nonprofit organization, the Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation (

"Today we celebrate the achievements of five highly creative individuals who used the Microsoft Windows platform to pursue their passions," Gates said. "Their stories, along with those of thousands of others who entered the Start Something Amazing Awards, are inspirational examples of the transformative power of technology."

The Start Something Amazing Awards were created to support the global awareness campaign called Start Something, one of the largest and longest marketing campaigns in the Windows brand history, which celebrates the countless possibilities for Windows to bring what people are passionate about to life using the hundreds of thousands of software applications and devices that work with Microsoft Windows XP.

When Tjelmeland became deaf at 22, she relied on technology to help cope with her hearing loss. She earned an online master's degree in computer technology and education from the University of Illinois, and started her e-websmart business out of her home. The company provided Tjelmeland with an avenue to successfully earn a living by using her Windows-based PC to communicate with clients and manage the business, from developing Windows Server(TM)-based Web sites and using Microsoft Office PowerPoint® for client proposals to tracking finances in Microsoft Office Excel®. After her daughter Ellie was born deaf, Tjelmeland developed the Web site http://www.iloveellie.comto share their inspiring story and connect with other families in similar circumstances. She also founded the Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation, a nonprofit organization providing information, resources and support to prospective cochlear implant recipients and their families. With these efforts, Tjelmeland has relied on Microsoft Office, MSN® Messenger and Windows Media® Player to connect with people in the deaf community. Tjelmeland is also a member of The Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce ( and the National Association of Women Business Owners (

"I can't imagine what my life would be like without technology," Tjelmeland said. "Everything I do involves technology -- from communicating with others to using my cell phone with text messages and digital camera on a daily basis -- but, more importantly, technology gave me my life back by helping me go from silence to sound."

As the winner in the Culture & Community category, Tjelmeland will receive $5,000 worth of the latest Windows technology, including a Media Center PC, Tablet PC and iriver H10 portable music device. She will also receive a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity for herself and a guest, by selecting one of four exotic National Geographic Expeditions to either discover the cultural and natural wonders of Bhutan, explore Tanzania and Zanzibar, take a classical journey through Greece, or chart China's past.

Founded in 1975, Microsoft is the worldwide leader in software, services and solutions that help people and businesses realize their full potential.

NOTE: Microsoft, Windows, Windows Server, PowerPoint, Excel, MSN and Windows Media are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corp. in the United States and/or other countries.

The names of actual companies and products mentioned herein may be the trademarks of their respective owners.

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Microsoft Start Something Amazing Winner
February 6, 2012 8:36 PM

St. Louis, MO -- Nov 11, 2005 --
Illinois entrepreneur wins award from Microsoft
By Jerri Stroud

Michelle Tjelmeland was 20 before she realized she had a hearing loss. Two years later, she was deaf.

Tjelmeland had been a reading teacher before the hearing loss forced her to quit. Then she had a child who showed signs of deafness, although many doctors dismissed her concerns.

"We went to nine different doctors, and they all told us pretty much I was nuts," she said. Finally, a doctor in New Orleans confirmed the baby's lack of hearing.

Her daughter's deafness spurred Tjelmeland to seek cochlear implants for both of them as well as training for a new career.

Tjelmeland, who lives in Springfield, Ill., is one of five winners of Microsoft Corp.'s Start Something Amazing awards, recognizing people who use the company's technology to pursue everyday passions. She received the award Thursday from Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash.

Tjelmeland, 32, has embraced technology, earning an online master's degree from the University of Illinois, starting a home-based Web site business with other stay-at-home mothers and launching a nonprofit foundation for families seeking cochlear implants, including a grant program for expenses that aren't covered by insurance.

Her business, e-Websmart, has clients in St. Louis, throughout Illinois, and across the United States. She and her team design the Web sites so clients can update them with little or no assistance. The service includes training and technical support.

"I am the owner and founder, but I have a team of people working with me," she said. Two graphic artists, a copy writer and an information-technology expert - the only man - work with e-Websmart on contracts.

Charlie Houska, an artist based in the Central West End, said a friend of a friend referred him to Tjelmeland.

"She has taught me how to update (my site) and keep track of visitors and all that stuff," said Houska. "I love it. It's amazing and different."

Glenn Hodas, a Springfield-based political consultant, is another satisfied client. He said Tjelmeland first helped him with, a site that contains dozens of maps showing how people voted in Illinois elections.

"I needed to get it going in about a week and a half," Hodas said. Tjelmeland jumped on his idea and met the deadline. She also designed two other sites for him. "She's really hands-on," he said. "She's got a super amount of energy."

Tjelmeland channels some of her energy into two other sites related to her pursuit of a cochlear implant for her daughter ( as well as the nonprofit Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation (

Tjelmeland began researching the possibility of an implant for her daughter as soon as the child was diagnosed as profoundly deaf.

Although the implants are controversial, Tjelmeland was raised in a family with normal speech and hearing, and she wanted her daughter to be able to speak and hear as well. The operation occurred when the child, named Ellie, was a toddler.

Ellie, who didn't hear until she got the implant, began speaking at age 4. She's 7 now and in second grade, performing at grade level.

"She still struggles because she is hearing-impaired," said Tjelmeland, whose other daughter, Lucy, 5, has normal hearing.

"I know what my life has been like being hearing-impaired," Tjelmeland said. "It was a very lonely, devastating world.

"If I only had one day to live my life and I could get the implant, I would hands-down do it," she said. "It has given me my life back."

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Taylorville native meets Microsoft mogul today
February 6, 2012 8:34 PM

Taylorville, IL -- Nov 11, 2005 --
Taylorville native meets Microsoft mogul today

TAYLORVILLE - Michelle Klemm Tjelmeland has been selected as one of five winners nationwide in the Microsoft "Start Something Amazing Awards."

Microsoft brought Tjelmeland and the other winners to Seattle where today they will meet with the company's founder Bill Gates.

Tjelmeland earned the top spot in the Culture and Community division of the Start Something campaign, a program intended to honor people who use Windows® and related technology to pursue their individual passions.

In addition to the trip to Seattle, she will received $5000 in Microsoft products and will take her choice of a National Geographic expedition to Bhutan, Tanzania and Zanzibar, Greece, or China.

The 1991 graduate of Taylorville High School who became profoundly deaf as an adult earned a master's degree in computer technology and education. She started a web development business - - that creates sites for clients across the county including one for Taylorville's SHADOW Home, to whom she donated her services.

When her daughter Ellie was born deaf, Tjelmeland shared their experiences at her web site where she currently counsels more than three dozen families facing similar situations.

Through cochlear implant technology, both mother and daughter can hear now. Tjelmeland founded the Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation (,) a non-profit and first of its kind organization that provides financial assistance for individuals and families experiencing financial difficulties from expenses related to cochlear implants.

"I cannot think about what my life would be like without technology," Tjelmeland stated. "Thank you to the creators of Microsoft software. You provide me and many others a lifeline."

Tjelmeland and her husband Joel live in the Springfield area with Ellie and their younger daughter Lucy. Michelle is the daughter of Max and Sheryl Klemm of Taylorville.

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Hearing Her Calling
February 6, 2012 8:32 PM

Home Business Magazine -- Apr 8, 2006 --
Hearing Her Calling

Written by Sandy Larson   

Deaf Web Designer Succeeds in Both Business and Non-Profit Endeavors

Michelle Tjelmeland has been deaf since the age of 22, but that hasn’t stopped her from running a successful web site design business, launching a non-profit foundation to assist families affected by hearing loss, and from being a devoted mom to her two daughters — Lucy, 5, and Ellie, 7, who is also deaf.

When asked to share the secret to her success, she says it comes down to, “Never settling...ever. I think what is always on my mind is, ‘What is next?’ I guess you could consider me a ‘serial-preneur.’”

Michelle started her business, e-websmart (, in 1999 from her Springfield, Illinois home. Her inspiration for doing so stems from her belief that, “Being a full-time mom is my most important job.” Michelle uses the talents of artists, programmers, and writers who also work from home-based offices.

Michelle has received numerous awards for her extraordinary business achievement and contributions to the community. Most recently, she was named 1st place winner in the national Microsoft® “Start Something Amazing” Campaign. Winning the culture and community category, Michelle was recognized for her creative use of Windows®-based technology to run her business and non-profit foundation.

"I can't imagine what my life would be like without technology," says Michelle, who can now hear, as can her daughter, thanks to Cochlear implants. "Everything I do involves technology — from communicating with others to using my cell phone with text messages and digital camera on a daily basis — but, more importantly, technology gave me my life back by helping me go from silence to sound."

As part of the award, Michelle received a trip to Seattle to meet Bill Gates, $5,000 in the latest Windows® technology, and a 12-day National Geographic Expedition in Africa.

This year, Michelle will continue to help clients with their web design needs and stay involved with her Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation ( She also plans to write a children's book and embark on a motivational speaking tour. And, at some point, she will take a well-deserved break and enjoy that safari she just won. HBM 

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Lending an Ear for Future Generations
February 6, 2012 8:31 PM

AdvaMed Campaign -- Apr 8, 2006 --

Michelle and her daughter Ellie have been selected to participate in the AdvaMed educational photo exhibition campaign on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in June of 2006. AdvaMed is the world's largest association representing manufacturers of medical devices, diagnostic products and medical information systems, education program designed to create awareness of the breadth and value of advanced medical technology (devices and diagnostics). Michelle and her daughter will meet the President of the United as well as members of the House and Senate and congressional members.

Lending an Ear for Future Generations

When Michelle Tjelmeland began college at Eastern Illinois University in 1991, she had no idea that her life was about to change drastically. Growing up, Michelle had some trouble hearing, but it was never bad enough to compel her to ask her doctors about it. However, during Michelle's first year in college, she realized she was struggling to hear her professors in the large lecture halls. When she went to the doctor at age 20, she learned the frightening truth--she was gradually going deaf.

Michelle is just one of 28 million Americans who have experienced some degree of hearing loss. In fact, hearing loss is the No. 1 birth defect in America. Every day, approximately one in 1,000 infants is born completely deaf, with two to three of every 1,000 infants born with partial hearing loss.

With the help of hearing aids, a tape recorder and hours of time listening and re-listening to her lectures, in 1995 Michelle graduated with a degree in education and began teaching 7th and 8th grade language arts.

A few years after college, at 22, Michelle married. Later that year, Michelle and her husband Joel were expecting their first child. Unfortunately, a difficult pregnancy may have caused her deafness to rapidly progress. She was forced into 24 weeks of bed rest and nine hospital stays. Within just a few months, Michelle was completely deaf, unable to hear or communicate with anyone in her life.

While Michelle adjusted to being newly hearing impaired, she and her husband welcomed daughter Ellie into the world - two months premature. Ellie spent the first two weeks of her life in the special care nursery, but unfortunately was not tested for hearing loss or deafness.

Michelle was frustrated that she could not hear the cries of her newborn, especially when she suspected that Ellie might be deaf as well. Nine months later and after nearly 50 visits to doctors all over the United States, Michelle's fear was confirmed - Ellie had been born completely deaf.

While performing hearing tests on babies shortly after delivery is becoming routine in most hospitals, nearly one-third of all infants still leave the hospital without having their hearing tested. Because only half of the 12,000 babies born annually with some type of hearing loss display a risk factor, newborn screening is crucial to early identification of hearing loss and deafness. Undetected hearing loss can have serious long-term consequences on a child's cognitive development, in turn impacting the child's future productivity.

Moving Into the Future

When Ellie turned 1, Michelle discovered that her daughter was a candidate for cochlear implants. Cochlear implants were first developed in the 1970s. A cochlear implant is very different from a hearing aid. Hearing aids amplify sound, while cochlear implants compensate for damaged or non-working parts of the inner ear. When hearing is functioning normally, intricate parts of the inner ear convert sound waves in the air into electrical impulses. These impulses are then sent to the brain, where a hearing person recognizes them as sound. A cochlear implant works in a similar manner. It electronically finds useful sounds and then sends them to the brain. Hearing through an implant may sound different from normal hearing, but it allows many people to communicate fully with oral communication in person and over the phone.

Ellie received cochlear implants at 17 months old, after six different pairs of hearing aids proved unsuccessful. She was one of the youngest children at the time to undergo the implant surgery. There are between 500,000 and 750,000 individuals with severe to complete hearing loss in the United States alone who could benefit from the cochlear implant. However, the Food and Drug Administration estimates that only 59,000 people world-wide have received cochlear implants. In the United States, about 13,000 adults have cochlear implants and nearly 10,000 children have received them. Ellie had been learning sign language since she was 1, and after receiving her cochlear implants, she began speech therapy to learn how to interpret the sounds created by the implants.

The cost of deafness, including education and special services, for a person born with hearing loss is over $1 million, compared with an estimated $70,000 for a cochlear implant, an impressive return on investment. For older adults who become deaf, a recent study found that cochlear implants were associated with statistically significant improvement in quality of life, especially concerning communication, feelings of being a burden, isolation and relations to friends and family.

In 2001, Michelle received her cochlear implants. Although her hearing is not completely restored, "The technology has given me my life back," said Michelle, referring to her active life that includes managing a successful Web development and consulting firm she started. Ellie's implants were a success, as well, and even though she did not speak her first complete sentence until she was 5 years old, now at age 8, her reading comprehension is higher than many of her hearing peers. In addition to Ellie's academic success, she loves all types of music and is learning to play the guitar. Convinced that every deaf person should have the opportunity to hear through the technology of cochlear implants, Michelle started the Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation (CIAF). CIAF assists families with costs that are not traditionally covered by insurance, including hotel, travel and childcare expenses during hospital stays or expenses that exceed the limits of an individual's health care coverage.

"When you are unable to hear, the world becomes scary," Michelle confessed. However, determination to overcome the challenges of her and Ellie's hearing loss has given Michelle the passion to do all she can to help others who are facing the same struggles.

Medical Technology Innovators

There are currently 3 companies designing and manufacturing cochlear implants. These companies are dedicated to continuously making improvements to this technology so that patients like Michelle and Ellie can pursue their interests without being limited by hearing loss. 

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Profiles in Progress You Can See
February 6, 2012 8:29 PM

Washington, D.C. -- May 8, 2006 --
Profiles in Progress You Can See 

AdvaMed, the world's largest association representing manufacturers of medical devices, diagnostic products and medical information systems, is undertaking a broad education program in 2006 designed to create awareness of the breadth and value of advanced medical technology (devices and diagnostics). As part of this education effort, AdvaMed is planning a program called, “Profiles in Progress You Can See.”  The program will feature people who have benefited from medical technology. 

The “profilees” will be both everyday and notable individuals who have benefited from medical technology.  The profile will be a short story about how the profilee confronted and overcame his/her health challenge, facts about the technology that benefited them, and a picture of the profilee.  The picture and story will be featured in an artistic poster.  It will be displayed in the Cannon Caucus Room for an evening reception on Monday, May 8th, on a Web site, and used with the press.  

What will be required of a Profilee? 

1.      A one hour interview to understand the facts about his/her story
2.      A one hour (maximum) photo session with a professional photographer
3.      Review of the final case study
4.      Possible interviews by the media 

When: Monday, May 8, 2006, 5-7 pm

Where: Cannon Caucus Room, Cannon House Building, Washington, DC

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Hear Hear
February 6, 2012 8:24 PM

Mother and Daughter each receive second cochlear implant to improve hearing
State Journal Register, Springfield, Illinois -- Aug 14, 2006 --

Michelle Tjelmeland has probably opened thousands of products and each time discarded the wrapper without a second thought.

But last Tuesday, when she unwrapped a piece of gum, she stopped and listened to the crinkling noise of the wrapper as she crumpled it in her hand. She repeated the motion over and over again until her left ear grew accustomed to the sound.

It was one of many times Tjelmeland, 32, froze with amazement during a seemingly mundane activity that day.  She nearly fell off her chair with surprise when she heard the sound of water running on the upstairs level of her family's Springfield home while she was downstairs.

And when Tjelmeland was using a can of hairspray to put the finishing touches on her hairstyle later that evening, she couldn't get enough of the subtle hissing noise.

"I just stood there and sprayed it into the air, and I was just smiling, because I haven't heard that (before). So all those things that people totally take for granted, I'm appreciating," Tjelmeland said.

The new sounds came alive only a few hours after Tjelmeland and her 8-year-old daughter, Ellie, had their second cochlear implants activated for the first time.

The mother and daughter underwent surgery at Carle Clinic in Urbana on July 18 to have the electronic devices implanted in their non-functioning left ears. The latest procedure was another chapter in the Tjelmelands' quest for hearing.

Ellie, who was born profoundly deaf, received her first cochlear implant in 1999, when she was about 11/2 years old. Tjelmeland, who grew up with poor hearing and started to become deaf in her early 20s, right before she gave birth to Ellie, received her first implant in 2001.

They are two of only about 3,000 people worldwide who have had bilateral implants. About 22,000 children and 24,000 adults in the United States have cochlear implants, according to industry estimates.

After three weeks of pain, recovery and nerves, Tjelmeland and Ellie returned to Carle on Tuesday to have their implants hooked up to a machine that tested the implants' response to noises.

Mother and daughter clutched each other's hand, smiled with delight and shed tears at the sounds their formally non-functioning ears were unable to interpret.

"It was amazing. Ellie was hooked up first, and it was tremendous. She had never heard any sound on that side. It's basically an electrical shock to your system," Tjelmeland said. "It will definitely take some time to get used to. It's amazingly crazy, in a very good way."

The cochlear implant, a slender wire similar to a spaghetti strand, works by stimulating hair cells directly through an electrode that a surgeon inserts into the ear. The implant is lined with electrodes that emit signals at varying wavelengths.

The implant is plugged into a small computer placed over the bone behind the ear that picks up sound waves transmitted to it from the outside. The computer breaks down the sound waves into digital impulses and passes them to the implant's electrodes.

Tjelmeland and Ellie had great success with their first implants, and although the devices were not a perfect solution, both were able to detect sounds in their right ears and function in a hearing world.

But, in January, Tjelmeland started to lose hearing in her formerly good ear - her left ear, which did not have an implant but was able to detect sounds through a hearing aid.

"I wasn't getting any sound from it, and I couldn't hear anymore. It wore out," she said.

The typically outgoing Tjelmeland felt herself becoming depressed and withdrawn - feelings similar to when she was a new mom with Ellie and experiencing hearing loss for the first time.

These emotions led Tjelmeland to look into getting a second cochlear implant and give Ellie the opportunity to improve her hearing as well.

"I certainly wasn't going to do something to make my life better without giving her the same opportunity," she said. "The most important thing was that we let her make her own decision. I talked to her a bit about it, but (Tjelmeland's husband) Joel really did, because I didn't want her to be persuaded by my decision."

Tjelmeland said her fears were worse before the second surgery because, in getting implants, both she and Ellie were giving up hope for natural hearing.

"The first time I knew I still had this one ear. The second time, it's like I'm giving it to a higher power," she said.

But both mother and daughter have already begun to see the improvements with their new implants - to varying degrees.

"(Ellie) was born deaf. She's never had any stimulation in that ear whatsoever. She never wore a hearing aid in that ear because it wouldn't work ... The benefit for her will not be as huge as I will receive, just because she's never had any stimulation on that side, but she is definitely going to benefit," Tjelmeland said. "For (Ellie's) entire life, she's been walking along with one eye, and for me for a long time, it was pretty similar. Now we have two."

The new implants also use newer technology and have better capabilities than their first implants.

"The old implant, it's on the one side and you're basically seeing black and white. Now with the other side, it's a full-color plasma TV," Tjelmeland said.

To make their new implants more effective, Tjelmeland and Ellie have been instructed to take out their old implants and listen to books on tape with their other ears for the next three to six months so they can work at using their new implants to focus, hear and understand the sounds.

Meanwhile, both are adjusting to the new noises they are inundated with each day.

Last year, Tjelmeland started the Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation to provide information to families struggling with hearing loss, as well as grants to help cover costs not covered by insurance for families of implant patients.

However, there are still potential risks associated with the surgery.
"You know, people ask if we're going to need to have surgery again. Between the fact that Ellie is 8 and I'm 32 ... probably. Technology fails, computers crash," she said.

"There is the unknown. There are no guarantees. But for everything that's awesome in life, you've got to take a risk."


Amanda Reavy can be reached at 788-1525 or


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State Journal Register Front Page
February 6, 2012 8:19 PM

To read about Michelle and Ellie, click here.

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SO Magazine Article featuring Michelle Tjelmeland
February 6, 2012 8:18 PM

To read the Michelle's story, click here.

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The Ripon Forum
February 6, 2012 8:15 PM

To read about Michelle and Ellie, click here.

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Extreme Entrepreneurs Visit Springfield and Features Michelle Tjelmeland
February 6, 2012 8:13 PM

To read about this event, click here.

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Bilateral Cochlear Implants: A Fitting Choice for Mother and Daughter
February 6, 2012 8:11 PM

Apr 28, 2008 --
Bilateral Cochlear Implants: A Fitting Choice for Mother and Daughter
Healthy Hearing Staff Writer

In many ways, Michelle Tjelmeland and her 10-year-old daughter, Ellie, are hearing miracles. With the help of modern technology, they went from the world of total silence to hearing – and rejoicing in he ordinary sounds most of us take for granted. The doorbell, for example, or the timer on the oven, make Michelle “freeze with amazement,” she says.

Two years ago Michelle and Ellie, of Springfield, Ill. became two of only several thousand people worldwide to receive a cochlear implant in the second ear – the procedure called a bilateral or binaural implant. Since then, mother and daughter hear “new sounds every day,” Michelle reports. “We can use the telephone, the cell phone, listen to our iPods, go through a drive-thru – everything a ‘normal’ hearing person can do.”

Wired for Sound

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Diseases defines cochlear implants as small electronic devices that can help provide a sense of sound to profoundly deaf or severely hard-of-hearing people. They consist of an external portion placed behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically implanted under the skin. Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sounds, the implant bypasses damaged hair cells in the inner ear and electronically stimulates the auditory nerve, sending signals to the brain, which perceives these impulses as sound. This does not give a person normal hearing, but a representation of sound that helps them understand speech. Also unlike hearing aids, use of a cochlear implant requires a surgical procedure and a rehabilitation therapy to learn or relearn the sense of hearing, although young children, whose language and cognitive skills have not yet developed, adjust much quicker.

According to the Food and Drug Administration – which approved the first implant in 1984, and the first child’s version in 1990 y 2005, nearly 100,000 people worldwide have had implants. In the United States alone, an estimated 22,000 adults and nearly 15,000 children had received them by that year.

However, patients did not receive implants in the second ear until about 10 years ago. To date, only 3 percent of the 100,000 people worldwide who currently wear implants have received two; Michelle and Ellie are part of that figure.

First Steps Towards Better Hearing

Michelle, 34, started losing her hearing in her teens and, by the time she turned 18, she already had her first set of hearing aids. Oddly, there was no history of hearing loss in her family, nothing at all to predict that Michelle would lose all her hearing during pregnancy, or that her child would be born deaf. Subsequent genetic testing turned out to be inconclusive.

Naturally, Michelle was devastated when Ellie was diagnosed as profoundly deaf. “I was an emotional wreck,” she relates on the website she launched to document their journey, “I was confused, angry, upset, and downright scared. Struggling with a progressive hearing loss myself, I recognized the challenges that awaited Ellie. The biggest challenge was trying to hear, speak, listen and communicate with the 90 percent of the world who could hear.”

At first, infant Ellie was fitted with a hearing aid, but that turned out to be problematic for a growing child – she needed new ear molds every time she grew into a new pair of shoes. She tried several pairs over the course of 10 months, but when it was determined by her doctors that Ellie was not benefiting from her high-powered aids, she received, at the age of 17 months, a cochlear implant. The procedure was successful and Ellie gradually adjusted to the sounds of the outside world.

Michelle’s Turn

As elated as she was about her daughter’s progress, Michelle carried a heavy burden. While Ellie’s hearing progressed, her own degenerated. By 1999, the year of Ellie’s implant, Michelle became profoundly deaf. A sense of isolation and depression – common feelings among people suffering from severe hearing impairment or deafness – took over her usually cheerful and outgoing personality.

Eventually, Michelle followed her daughter’s example and received a cochlear implant as well. “It has truly given me my life back,” she relates.

Mother and daughter could have lived happily ever after with their respective cochlear implants, but there is much more to their story.

Two Ears Are Better Than One

Hearing specialists agree that two implants are more effective that just one in understanding speech, especially in environments with many competing sounds. So in 2006, Michelle decided to take the next step toward better hearing: the second implant. As for Ellie, who was eight-years-old at the time, “we allowed her to make her own decision,” Michelle says. “Ellie wanted to do this too, so we were one of the first mom and daughter teams to be implanted bilaterally at the same time.”

Having a bilateral implant is not an easy choice. Some critics of this procedure argue that the device permanently damages the cochlea, thus preventing recipients from taking advantage of potentially superior treatments for deafness that might become available in the future.

For Michelle and Ellie, however, there is no looking back. Their successful second implants were placed at Carle Clinic in Urbana, Ill. in July 2006. “For me, hearing again was fantastic,” Michelle says. “Words cannot express how my life has changed since being implanted. I have gained my self-esteem and independence back.”

As for Ellie, the honor-roll fourth grader who is still undergoing speech and hearing therapy, “you would never know she was born deaf. Her speech is near perfect.”

Spreading the Message of Hope

Michelle’s implants opened the door to many new opportunities. When she became deaf, she was forced to quit her middle-school teaching career, but when she re-discovered her sense of hearing, she went back to school and earned her master’s degree.

“I could have sat back and let my disability overcome me, but I decided to overcome it,” she says.

Besides launching her own award-winning website design company, e-websmart, she also founded the Cochlear Implant Awareness Foundation to provide information and inspiration to others considering this procedure. “Starting this foundation was like a therapy to me,” Michelle says. “I am able to positively impact so many lives and help others realize there’s hope.”

And there is an added advantage to having not one but two implants, as any busy parent can appreciate. “The greatest thing,” Michelle says, “is when my kids are fighting; I can turn off my implants and enjoy the silence. I literally have the best of two worlds.”


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Michelle Tjelmeland – Recipient of 2009 Woman of Influence Award
February 6, 2012 8:08 PM

To read about Michelle and this award, click here.

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