Saturday, July 15, 2006


'So Tom can hear now then?'
'Well, yes - he just doesn't know what he hears'

This is a fairly close approximation to the question I was asked numerous times yesterday evening and the stock answer I honed with practise. Family and friends had all been waiting for the second of Tom's initial 'switch on' mapping sessions yesterday morning and were desperate for positive news. I didn't feel able to explain how we had watched and played with curious apprehension as the dynamic audiological duo, Kim and Mark, had run through their various routines. This is my attempt now.

Tom arrives at the soundproof booths with a heightened sense of anticipation now, having discovered that Assessment Centre's stock of toys runs to a parking garage and a considerable number of cars. Having scoped the joint on Thursday, he made a beeline for the garage's hiding place the moment we arrived on Friday and demanded its retrieval. Within seconds he was installed at a table with everything set out before him and ready to go. Aware that windows of cooperation have to be seized on with toddlers, things got under way pretty quickly.

To the uninvolved eye, the process of mapping a cochlear implant has more than a degree of hypnotic tedium about it. The transmitter on the subject's head is connected directly to a computer and a series of impulses are sent to stimulate one or more of the electrodes coiled neatly inside the cochlea. A series of beeps is provided for the 'audience' to make them aware that stimuli are being applied. And that's kind of it - over and over at different frequencies and different intensities - while the audiologists and parents just stare intently waiting for an outward sign that something is being registered. Cochlear Implant mapping is a spectator sport and, like going to watch greyhound racing, its only really of interest to the aficionado or those who've wagered their shirt on the outcome.

To stretch the 'mapping as a trip to the dogs at Catford Stadium' metaphor a little further, the aficionados see things that the average punter completely misses; the baulk out of the gate, the hint of lameness. In Tom's case, this amounted to almost imperceptible eyelid flutters in response to certain intensities of sound and elongated pauses during his play. While I was busy hunting for the next chocolate drop bribe, Kim, with Mark behind the mildly intimidating one-way glass, were noting these subtle responses. They appeared satisfied with what they saw while Nik and I, the average punters , needed something a little more concrete to convince us that the magic had started.

Thankfully, it came.

For the final phase of testing, all Tom's electrodes were switched on and the stimuli were sounds played through a speaker rather than impulses transmitted directly to the array. As soon as the first sound came out Tom turned, looking for the source. He was back in the hearing business, we could go home content.

That, however, wasn't to be the end of it.

During a short session with Amanda, an implant team speech therapist, Tom got his hands on a keyboard and started plunking away. We've watched with choked sadness over the past few months when he's played with musical toys at home only to discover that, seemingly, all their batteries have gone dead at once, and quickly lose interest. Not this time; he belted away on the keys, sounding to us like Bach, Jerry Lee Lewis and my drunk brother-in-law all rolled in to one.

At the end of his short recital he looked at me, pointed to the side of his head and said 'Ears!'


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