As surgeries resume, FDA expands approval allowing cochlear implants in babies as young as 9 months.
SARASOTA, Fla. – At just 9 months old, Eli Tovar Urzua might have been one of the youngest patients ever to receive a cochlear implant.
Born deaf to hearing parents Nancy Urzua-Alba and Jesus Tovar, the Sarasota baby qualified for the advanced medical device when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lowered the age of pediatric cochlear implantation this past March to 9 months for children with bilateral, profound sensorineural hearing loss. The regulatory approval, however, came just three days before the state ban on non-emergency elective surgeries, during the first surge of novel coronavirus cases in Florida.
Fortunately, little Eli did not have to wait long to make history. Although the procedure was delayed a few months, Eli received a cochlear implant in his right ear just after his first birthday in May – making him the youngest patient ever to receive a cochlear implant at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. After a short period of recovery and adjustments, Eli is slated to receive a second implant in his left ear as early as next month.
“In Eli’s case, a few months delay isn’t going to make a big difference … but in general, the earlier a baby is implanted with a cochlear implant, the more normalized that baby's life is going to be,” said Sarasota neurotologist Jack Wazen, MD, an ear/nose/throat specialist with Silverstein Institute who performed Eli’s procedure June 16 once elective surgeries resumed at Sarasota Memorial’s Cape Outpatient Surgery Center.
Children begin to pair the sounds of speech with meaning between 6 months and 1 year, Dr. Wazen said, so the sooner they are equipped to hear the full range of sounds, the better their chance of developing speech and language at a trajectory similar to their hearing peers. Prior to the latest FDA approval, babies had to be at least 1 year to be eligible.
“Taking people from the world of deafness and putting them back in the world of the hearing is huge,” Dr. Wazen stressed. “It’s huge for your life, for your communication, for your education, for your career.”
While traditional hearing aids can help children experiencing mild to moderate hearing loss, they often are not enough for those with severe hearing loss, whose inner, outer or middle ear is damaged to the point where amplification alone cannot help them hear sounds.
The cochlear device works differently than hearing aids. It bypasses the structural damage and directly stimulates the auditory nerve to provide the sensation of sound.
For young children who are deaf or severely hard-of-hearing, using a cochlear implant by the time they are 18 months-old exposes them to sounds during an optimal period to develop speech and language skills, and gives them the best chance to grow up with little to no need for visual aids. That, in turn, impacts their social and cognitive function, educational achievement, employment and mental health.
Sharon Rende, AuD, director of Audiology at the Silverstein Institute, will spend the coming months working with Eli to ensure his implants are adjusted to an optimal level. She also was the one to activate the device and be part of the milestone moment Eli heard his mother’s voice for the first time, telling him softly, “Hi Buddy … I love you … I love you.”
“For me it’s emotional every time,” Rende said. “It’s new and exciting and just wonderful. It’s the beginning of a change in his life, a beginning of his life as a hearing child.”
For his parents, the activation of Eli’s implant was a pivotal day in a challenging journey that began when he failed his newborn hearing test a year ago. Tears flowed as they watched Eli’s eyes widen in wonder as he began to hear their voices and the myriad sounds swirling around them.
“I’m just grateful that we’re here and excited to see how he will continue to grow and react to sound,” his mom Nancy said, “because I know this is just the beginning of another journey.”
For More Information
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, hearing loss is the most common congenital condition in the nation, with an estimated 3 in 1,000 infants born in the U.S. each year with moderate, severe or profound hearing loss. Medicaid and most insurance plans typically cover cochlear implants for children. For information or referrals, please call Sarasota Memorial’s HealthLine at 941-917-7777.
About Sarasota Memorial Health Care System
Sarasota Memorial is a regional medical center offering Southwest Florida’s greatest breadth and depth of care, with more than 1 million patient visits a year. Sarasota Memorial’s 839-bed acute care hospital has been recognized repeatedly as one of the nation’s best, with superior patient outcomes and a complete continuum of outpatient services– from urgent care clinics and physician groups, laboratory and diagnostic imaging centers, to home health and skilled nursing and rehabilitation.