Advance with MUSC Health

"We Are So Lucky" | Born Deaf, This One-Year-Old Can Hear Thanks to Cochlear Implant

Advance With MUSC Health
February 14, 2022
The Dixon Family at the park.

When Elliot Dixon enters a room, the place comes alive with curiosity and sound — a lot of gleeful squeals, excited cackles, and banging of toys. There is so much for the now-16-month-old to take in and explore because Elliot, who was born deaf, has only had a full range of sound since October 2021. Thanks to MUSC Health's Cochlear Implant Program, he can hear everything now.

Andy, an audio engineer, and his wife Julia, an MUSC home health physical therapist, began navigating the excitement of parenthood relatively early in the pandemic, giving birth to Elliot in September of 2020. When he was one day old, the hospital performed a standard auditory brain stimulation (ABS), which looks for response to sound.

Andy and Julia tried not to worry when Elliot didn't respond to his first hearing test since hearing loss in newborns can be attributed to amniotic fluids still present from C-section births. But another test was performed before the new family went home, and Elliot again did not pass the hearing test.

Two months after several inconclusive test results from other ENT facilities, the family found themselves at MUSC Children's Health. At last, they would get some answers.

"Our anxiety and suspicions about his potential hearing loss had really come to a head," Andy says. "The hopeful notion that his unresponsiveness to sound was due to a fluid blockage had begun to fade. After deciding to go to MUSC, we finally began to receive great care and they were able to confirm through proper testing that Elliot was deaf. They have such a great team in the audiology department, and they presented the difficult news in a way that we needed to receive it. Finding out in no uncertain terms that he was deaf allowed us to move forward."

In meeting with MUSC Children's Health Surgeon-in-Chief Dr. David White, who cleared his schedule to speak with the family that day, they learned about cochlear implants for the first time, that they could be a viable option for Elliot. They understood what the next steps would be.

A cochlear implant is a two-part medical device surgically placed under the skin and behind the ear with an electrode array inserted into the cochlea, the hearing organ. It's designed to give a person with severe-to-profound sensorineural hearing loss the ability to detect speech and environmental sounds. The device's external portion includes a sound processor, microphone, and transmitting coil and is worn like (and looks like) a behind-the-ear hearing aid. As for Elliot, his is kept in place with a Cochlear headband.

Simply learning of the existence of something so promising was enormous for the Dixons. Before, they just didn't know there was a possibility for Elliot to have access to sound.

"We came away from the meeting with Dr. White with huge emotions; it was a lot to process," Andy says. "We were scared and worried about making the best decisions for him."

Confident in the MUSC Children's Health care team, Julia and Andy took the next step and scheduled Elliot's MRI to determine his eligibility. His cochlear anatomy had to be normal to proceed with the implants. "It turned out that his cochlear organs were viable, and that was a huge relief, a big step just knowing it was going to work for him," Julia says.

Since it's not recommended to perform this surgery earlier than nine months of age, the first of two surgeries — one for each ear — was scheduled for July 10, 2021.

While "scared to death" of sedating their tiny baby and the risks involved, Julia and Andy survived the nerve-wracking two hours of surgery last summer knowing Elliot was in great hands. It turns out their son did better than them. "It was much less traumatic for him. He did so well, and we came home that day," Julia says. "He was smiling six hours after surgery."

After a month of healing, Elliot's right ear was "turned on," and on August 10, he heard his first sounds. Because of the nature of the cochlear implant, Elliot probably heard noise; but as his mind adapted, the noise eventually became clearer.

Elliot's second surgery was on September 1. By that evening, he was happily looking through one of his books at home.

Elliot healed quickly and had his second ear turned on a month later, just a few days after this first birthday. "That was the goal," Andy says, "to have bilateral cochlear implants by his first birthday."

The family was assigned a specialty family coach following the surgery. Julia says, "We felt like he was well cared for, and we felt so supported."

Meanwhile, Elliot has gotten accustomed to a new world of sound, lighting up when his headband is on every morning. He responds to music, too — dancing when he hears it. "He loves to hear any new sounds," Andy says.

Elliot also excels weekly in speech therapy with MUSC Health speech pathologist Nevitte Morris, who works with comprehension and incorporating sound into context. She has a specialty certification of AVT (auditory-verbal therapy), and she helped him reach the benchmarks expected of other children his age. His first word? "Mama."

He also sees Kaylene King, AuD, an MUSC Health audiologist who tweaks his cochlear implant every two weeks. Remarkably, she can plug him in and figure out all that he's processing.

"It's basically a Graphic EQ," says Andy. "She can see all the frequencies and make adjustments according to his response."

Meanwhile, the family — and some friends, too — are learning how to sign as a backup. And they're looking forward to the future. From having a child during a pandemic to guiding him to hearing for the first time, Julia and Andy have been on an unexpected path but one that they say they're grateful for.

"The whole journey seems surreal," Andy says. "From the time we confirmed his deafness to now, with him saying 'mama,' and a few other words, at every turn, we have been tempering our expectations, and it has constantly exceeded our expectations."

"We are so lucky," Julia continues. "We are so thankful for it all."