Former Miss America, Heather Whitestone, Recovers Her Hearing
Adele Slaughter, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
In 1995 Heather Whitestone became the first deaf woman to be crowned Miss America.
Now she's the first Miss America alum to get a cochlear implant.
"With the hearing aid, I was able
to hear some sounds in my left ear," Whitestone says. "It has helped me to learn
to speak, to dance to music, and to listen to other people speaking. I did not
consider getting a cochlear implant until my oldest son John fell down in the
backyard and cried."
"Unfortunately, I did not hear the sounds coming from the backyard," Whitestone
adds. "I was not there to comfort John when he cried. It bothered me tremendously
so I prayed to God to give me more hearing. God brought me to considering a
Whitestone has been deaf since
she was 18 months old, after she suffered an extremely high fever and the doctors
gave her a life-saving antibiotic that is thought to have caused her hearing
loss. Today, she has no recollection of what it was like to hear.
"My main way of communication is oral," Whitestone notes.
"I have used my voice to speak about 98% of my life. I learned sign language
when I was in 11th grade, but I barely use it because I see hearing people everywhere
I go. I also read lips while I listened with the help of hearing aid."
While her cochlear implant was
activated this September, it was not an easy decision.
"For six months, I asked different professional people tons of questions,"
Whitestone says. "I spoke to people who had lost their hearing at least a year
before they had received a cochlear implant. They all said that the sounds
they heard were similar to what they heard before they lost their hearing."
"Somewhere around 10 to 12 % of
Americans -- about 27 million people -- have a hearing loss that prevents them
from hearing speech in most group settings," John Niparko reports, professor
of otology and neuro-otology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
That means that in a restaurant, or a party, or an environment with
a lot of people they have difficulty understanding speech."
There are two different types of hearing loss: conductive
Conductive is caused by a problem
in the outer or middle ear. In this type of hearing loss, the sound cannot reach
the nerves in the inner ear.
loss is the result of damage
to some or all of the small hair cells in the cochlea, which are responsible
for changing sound into electric pulses that are in turn translated by the brain.
It also can result from direct injury to the auditory (hearing) nerve, which
carries the electric impulses to the brain. This particular
type of hearing loss can happen before or during birth as well as later in life.
Some of the common reasons for such hearing loss include:
- Perinatal infections
- Lack of oxygen at birth
- Low birth weight
- Head and neck birth defects
Late onset of sensorineural
hearing loss can be caused by:
- Bacterial meningitis
- Drug induced ototoxicity (damage to hearing)
- Excessive noise
- Physical damage to head or ear
When hearing loss does occur, hearing aids can help amplify sound. But individuals
whose hearing loss is more severe may not get sufficient help from a hearing
"About 1% -- or 2.5 million Americans
-- is functionally deaf. Of those individuals it is thought that about one-third
could benefit from a cochlear implant. That's about 700,000 people," Niparko
says. "Today in the US about 32,000 people have a cochlear implant."
The cochlear implant bypasses the
cells that are responsible for taking the energy and sound and converting that
into a nerve signal. The implant takes the sound and converts it into an electrical
code, which is transferred directly to the hearing nerve. Then the brain interprets
that code, which is similar to the code normally produced by sound.
"We know that adults who have had
shorter periods of deafness are more likely to be able to use the information
that the implant provides to understand speech," Niparko explains. "For children
who are born deaf, early intervention results in a much greater benefit from
The surgery to insert the implant is an outpatient procedure that lasts about
an hour and a half. The cochlear implant system costs about $24,000. Implant
surgery runs about $8,000 making the total cost of getting a cochlear implant
"It's the cost of an automobile,"
Niparko says. "But this one is designed to last 120 years. And only about 1%
of them need to be replaced because of circuit failure of some sort."
"In the surgery we open up the
mastoid behind the ear canal," Niparko explains. "We expose the inner ear and
place the electrode array around the hearing nerve through the inner ear and
secure the device under the skin, and close up. After a period of healing which
takes about a month, the device is activated by an external computer."
Learning how to understand the
sounds is the next step.
"The brain is a quite amazing organ
in that it does some of the work on its own," Jennifer Yeagele says, Whitestone's
audiologist. "We basically give her tools in how to focus on a sound that might
be giving her more difficulty. It is a process and takes time and effort on
the part of the patient and the team working with them. The patient has to be
motivated and recognize that they won't be able to walk out and in six months
never need to see their audiologist again. It's a life long journey."
Since her implant has
been activated, it's been music to Whitestone's ear.
"I was listening to the audio book cassette of Goodnight
Moon with my boys and my husband John," Whitestone says. "My oldest son
repeated the words. I could not understand most of the words he said, but I
understood and heard two words perfectly. He said, 'Goodnight Moon.' These
were my first words I understood with the cochlear implant alone."
"I hear more fussing from my boys, but it helps me to be
a better mom," Whitestone adds. "For example, I was in my bedroom for a minute.
I heard fast running water. I immediately checked the bathroom down the hall
and noticed that my two boys climbed into the bathtub. I was able to catch them
before anything happened to them. A year ago, I would not have heard the running
water from the bathtub even when I wore my hearing aid."
For those considering a cochlear
implant, Whitestone offers her Miss America optimism combined with her own brand
"It is important that you are at
peace with your decision and have a positive attitude because cochlear implantation
is not a cure for deafness," Whitestone advises. "It takes time and patience
to work with the cochlear implant. Yes, my cochlear implant is working beautifully, but it does
not cure my deafness. It brings sounds to my right ear, sounds I never heard
before, even with a hearing aid, for 28 years."
For more information on cochlear implants, click
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Created: 2/1/2003  - Adele Slaughter & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.