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Thomas, 1

Chesterfield | Services: Otolaryngology

Breaking the Sound of Silence

"Of all the things you worry about when you're pregnant, deafness wasn't even on my radar," said Shannon Patterson, who had no pregnancy-related risk factors and, along with her husband Tim, has no family history of deafness.

Yet a day after his December 2013 birth, Thomas, Shannon and Tim's second child, failed his newborn hearing screening. Those results are not unusual and can be caused by fluid buildup in a baby's ears, but when Thomas received similar results after multiple retests, he was referred to audiology specialists at Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR).

In February 2014, Thomas was diagnosed with severe-to-profound sensorineural hearing loss in both ears. He began using hearing aids, but even with maximum amplification, he couldn't hear normal speech or respond consistently to loud sounds. Shannon said CHoR's audiology specialists explained Thomas' options – use American Sign Language or have cochlear implant surgery. (Cochlear implants use microphones that sit outside the ear similar to traditional hearing aids. Sound is transmitted to surgically-implanted electrodes in the inner ear and then to the brain via the hearing nerve.)

"For our family, the cochlear implant was the right path," said Shannon, who was referred to Rajanya Petersson, MD, Assistant Professor, Department of Pediatric Otolaryngology, CHoR. "We felt having the ability to hear and learn language was going to be important in Thomas' life."

CHoR's Department of Otolaryngology provides a range of ear, nose, throat, and facial plastic and reconstructive services, including treatment of recurring infections, hearing loss, head and neck masses and defects, and airway anomalies. Children's Hospital Foundation supported the Department with $326,770 over the last two years and recently approved an additional $567,362 three-year pledge. CHoR is the only Central Virginia hospital offering comprehensive pediatric cochlear implant services. Of the 15-20 children implanted each year at CHoR, Thomas was the youngest recipient to date.

"Providing cochlear implants to children under 12 months is becoming the standard of care at implant centers around the country," said Dr. Petersson. "Studies show implants received before age one help children catch up on speech and language development earlier than those children who receive implants after age one."

In their search for the best treatment, Shannon and Tim looked at other facilities, but said, "the consistent answer was the program at Children's Hospital was top-notch." Because they both work full-time and have a 3-year-old son, CHoR's location was also appealing.

"You could tell this was a group of people who had been working together for a long time and were very supportive of each other," Tim said about Thomas' CHoR team.

On August 14, 2014, Thomas had bilateral cochlear implant surgery. Throughout the procedure, Shannon and Tim received updates from the operating room nurses.

"Getting regular updates and reassuring us that everything was okay helped us tremendously," recalled Shannon, who spent the night with Tim and Thomas in the hospital after the surgery.

Since August, Thomas has started making more noise and engaging with his brother, Will. He's learning to crawl, loves building and knocking down block towers and attends a weekly music class. Although he doesn't wear the external microphone when he sleeps, Thomas fell asleep one night while Tim sang to him.

"Cochlear implants provide a different way of hearing," said Dr. Petersson, "but children’s brains are so adaptable. With proper programming by and regular follow-ups with our team, children learn to turn sounds into meaningful hearing."

Thomas visits with his audiology team monthly to fine tune his implants and improve sound recognition. He receives weekly speech therapy at home through Chesterfield County and monthly speech therapy at CHoR.

"Anytime we needed something the team was there," said Shannon. "They've taken tremendous care of our whole family."

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