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 Iloveellie.com. 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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