Joey Christianson cried during the birth of his children.
Joey’s tears, however, were not tears of joy. The Kennewick man watched his three children enter the world screaming and crying, but he heard nothing. He was born deaf. So, he cried as his children cried, wishing he could hear the first sounds leaving their infant lips.
That changed Thursday when Joey’s cochlear implant was activated at Columbia Basin Hearing Center in Kennewick. He heard his teenage and adult children’s voices for the first time, as well as those of his siblings. The 53-year-old wiped tears from his eyes as family members took turns speaking the first words they knew their brother and father could hear.
“This is wonderful because we’ve waited all our lives to hear you and for you to hear us,” Patti Becker of Zillah told her brother.
Joey’s deafness is thought to have been caused during pregnancy when his mother came in contact with a person infected with German measles. Joey’s siblings grew up believing their brother never would hear their voices.
“We were told for years that he was missing a nerve,” said Kathy Christianson of Kennewick, another sister.
The family began pursuing a cochlear implant for Joey in October.“What did we have to lose?” Kathy Christianson rhetorically asked. “Nothing.”
Joey visited a doctor and underwent two cochlear implant procedures at Swedish Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle during the week of Thanksgiving. A group of electrodes were placed in his right cochlea, a spiral-like cavity inside the ear. His insurance covered a portion of the surgery in Seattle.
After about four weeks of healing, Joey and his family on Thursday convened at Columbia Basin Hearing Center for the first cochlear implant activation in Eastern Washington outside Spokane. The center’s clinical audiologist, Jennyfer Wright, and Dr. Erin Maloff of Cochlear Americas spearheaded the activation, which involved calibrating the device so it wasn’t too loud or too soft.
After about an hour of tuning, the implant was turned on.
“It’s going to open up a whole new world to him,” said Jim Christianson of Kennewick, his older brother. He added: “It’s amazing to see him turn his head when we talked to him.”
The device furnished to Joey on Thursday resembled a hearing aid with a second attachment — a speech processor and microphone wrapped around the top of his ear, while a magnetized transmitter sat flush against the right side of his head. A magnified receiver rested just below the skin. Magnets converted acoustic energy to electric energy, which stimulated an auditory nerve and sent that information to the brain.
The device automatically adjusts its sound thresholds, so Joey will be just as comfortable attending a loud sporting event as he would be watching the game at home on TV.
It could take up to a year for Joey’s hearing to stabilize and his brain to fully adjust to hearing. He was given a remote to control the volume, which also is equipped with Bluetooth technology.
Wright and Maloff initially used a series of beeps to determine what he could hear. They asked him to identify the softest detectible sound, which was then increased and adjusted.
“Do you hear any beep, beep, beep?” Wright asked Joey.
“No,” he said as his children stood with cellphone cameras ready.
The room was nearly silent.
“No beep, beep, beep?” Wright asked again.
“No,” he said.
Maloff reassured the room. “Sometimes when a patient hasn’t heard for a long time, it’s hard to tell if (they’re hearing) a sound,” she told the family.
More minutes passed. Joey scrunched his face and narrowed his eyes in concentration as he held a chart used to determine the volume of the beeps.
“I hear beep, beep, beep,” he said cautiously. “I hear that.”
The calibration continued until they found the dynamic range for each electrode and sound grew more uniform. In about an hour, Joey gained a sense that had mostly eluded him for more than five decades.
He said he wanted to listen to music, which he’s felt, but never heard. The family spoke of him attending his daughter’s middle school music recitals with a balloon between his arms so he could feel the music’s vibrations even if he didn’t hear the sounds.
For 33 years, Joey has worked as an auto mechanic, repairing motors. He used to ask co-workers to listen to motors for him to help him diagnose problems. Now, he can do it himself.
His deafness has affected his speech. Dr. Shannon Aiello, the center’s director of audiology, said his speech should improve as he continues to use the cochlear implant. His hearing also should evolve as he learns to identify sounds, pitches and intonations. The cochlear implant, however, does not necessarily restore natural hearing, according to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
“(Joey’s) going to go through a lot of rehabilitation to learn how to use his ears,” Aiello said.
He’s already considering having a second cochlear implant placed in his left ear, a procedure that would have to wait at least six months, Maloff said. A second implant would help Joey better localize sounds and could allow him to more clearly listen to music.
Cochlear implants have been used since the mid-1980s. Although this was the first activation performed at Columbia Basin Hearing Center, it almost certainly won’t be the last. In the past four months, the center has referred five people to Seattle for the cochlear implant. All of the patients had their implants activated, although Joey’s was the first in the Tri-Cities.
“This is where audiologists can really make a difference in people’s lives,” said Dr. Frank Aiello, the center’s founder and co-owner.
Shortly after Joey’s implant was activated, he was asked what he most wanted to hear. After a brief moment of consideration, he said, “Everything.”
Now he can.