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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