:: High hopes for implant to penetrate Jorja’s silent world – National – FairFaxDIGITAL ::

High hopes for implant to penetrate Jorja’s silent world – National

Jill Stark
May 16, 2007Jorja Steele.jpg

SHE lives in a world of silence where words are spelt out on fingers and read on the lips of her parents.

After meningitis took Jorja Steele’s hearing a week before her first birthday, her only hopes for a life with sound were cochlear implants, which can partially restore hearing to the deaf.

But the inner ear damage was too severe and double implants failed to make a difference.

Today, her last chance to hear or talk lies in the hands of neurosurgeons from three Melbourne hospitals. In a rare operation — carried out on less than 25 children in the world — the three-year-old will become the first child in Australia to receive an auditory brainstem implant.

Her parents, Megan and Jack, who have travelled from New Zealand for their only child’s operation, have an anxious wait this morning as surgeons at the Royal Children’s Hospital implant a tiny pad of 21 electrodes in Jorja’s brain.

The three-hour procedure is expected to be a success, but no neurosurgery is without risks and her parents have been briefed on possible complications including stroke, paralysis and bleeding on the brain.

“We want to give our daughter every opportunity, but on the flip side it’s really scary,” Mrs Steele said.

“I don’t think we’ll ever forgive ourselves if, as a result of surgery, we make matters worse. But we don’t want to end up two years down the track and discover that these brainstem implant recipients are doing really, really well and we’ve missed our chance.”

Unlike a cochlear implant, which stimulates nerves inside the ear, the brainstem implant stimulates the hearing nerve where it enters the brain.

The director of the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital’s Cochlear Implant Clinic, Rob Briggs, is leading the surgical team, which includes the heads of neurosurgery at the Royal Melbourne and Royal Children’s.

Jorja will not regain full hearing, but Mr Briggs said there was emerging research to show that children had significantly better results than adults.

Measuring just three by six millimetres, the pad of electrodes will stimulate hearing pathways in the brain. A microphone on the outer ear digitally transmits the sound signals to a decoding chip under the skin behind the ear. A wire connects the chip to the electrode attached to the brain stem, and different stimuli are delivered allowing a variety of sounds to be heard, in turn aiding speech.

It will be six weeks before Jorja’s implant will be “switched on” — a complicated mapping process to determine which electrodes are delivering the most effective results.

“It could be as little as hearing some environmental sound, but if she could learn to speak that would give her so much more independence,” said Mrs Steele, whose daughter’s treatment was funded by the New Zealand Government.




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