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Clinic's camp helps hearing-impaired children

July 12, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Turning on a cochlear implant or an auditory brainstem implant doesn't mean a person can just magically hear. The brain needs to be trained. The John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles is offering families around the world a unique learning experience, and it's opening up a new world for a Southern California girl.

Amelia Heston, 4, was born with a cleft palate, a hole in her heart and no eyelids.

"We had no idea that she was, you know, it was a shock when she was born; that's when we found out so it was traumatic," said Kristina Heston, Amelia's mother.

Then her parents discovered she was deaf. A cochlear implant was not an option because Amelia had no hearing nerves. Her family raised the money to bring her to Italy to get an auditory brain implant. At first, the strange noises scared her.

"When they first turned it on, it was pretty traumatic. She cried a lot. I think she was just scared," said Kristina Heston.

Now her brain is learning how to process those sounds and speak.

At the John Tracy Clinic, hearing-impaired children from various countries are enrolled in an intense summer boot camp. It's the only program of its kind in the world, and it's especially important for preschoolers.

"That's when the brain is going to absorb that information and make sense out of it," said Angie Stokes with the John Tracy Clinic. "Those children really do learn how to speak and listen."

Using tablets and big screens, kids see visual cues. They're encouraged to speak and interact. Teachers are equipped with microphones, and speakers are placed in every corner of the room.

"We want them to hear the teacher as easily as possible without interference," said Stokes.

The clinic was founded 70 years ago. Actor Spencer Tracy and his wife, Louise, had a son born with hearing loss. Louise wanted John and others like him to learn how to function and succeed in a hearing world.

"We've had many of our children now adults go to universities; they've gone to MIT and UCLA," said Stokes.

While kids are in class, parents get their own intensive learning sessions. It's like getting a mini master's course in teaching deaf kids how to listen and speak. But most importantly what they're learning is how to have hope.

"There is definitely hope, and we can see improvement. It's just a really positive experience for all of us," said Erika Burke, Amelia's grandmother.

The summer program also offers training courses for siblings.

The House Research Institute and Children's Hospital Los Angeles will soon begin a clinical trial on the auditory brainstem implant.


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