Feb 2018 CT Post
Tara Gallagher holds a black disk over her mouth and speaks loudly and clearly to the 7-year-old girl seated across from her at the kid-sized table. “Orange,” Gallagher says. Teesa Arden repeats the word, prompting Gallagher to reach into a bag and hand her a little plastic orange fruit. Teesa says it again, forms her lips into a circle and makes the “o” sound as she traces her lips with her index finger, turning to show her mother that she can make the sound. Kay Arden laughs and gives a nod of encouragement to her daughter before Gallagher continues the lesson with other fruit, ending with one of the latest words Teesa can say — “banana.” It’s a far cry from where Teesa was a year ago, when her only way to communicate was with hand motions or gibberish.
Teesa is the first person in the Northeast to receive the new “SlimJ” cochlear implant, a two-piece hearing device with an advanced electrode that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in November 2017.
She became one of the first people in the country to receive the device at all when it was implanted during a December surgery at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai.
Teesa was likely born deaf. She grew up with her 9-year-old sister, Teena, in an orphanage in northern India. Little is known about either of the sisters’ past, Arden said. Both girls were found on the streets of India and taken in by nuns who ran the orphanage. Her profound deafness was diagnosed after the Ardens adopted the sisters, brought them home to Trumbull and had Teesa’s hearing tested. What followed was an intense course in American Sign Language and coaching from her new family before the 7-year-old received her implant.
“When I first met her she had zero words, like not even a single word,” said Dr. Maura Cosetti, the director of cochlear implants at NYEE. “But she's so interactive and so bubbly and clearly so attentive to the world that, by the time that she got this implant, she had like three words that she could say perfectly. That rate of speech development is remarkable.”
Arden, a stay-at-home mom, and her husband Edward, a banker in New York, began the adoption process in 2015 and traveled to India in February 2017 to bring Teesa and Teena to join their four other children, ages 23, 21, 17, and 11. The Ardens found out during the adoption process that Teesa had hearing loss, but did not know the extent of it until she was tested in the U.S. The family learned sign language together and began to teach Teesa so she could have a way to communicate while they prepared for the cochlear implant. Teesa had her first implant in her right ear in August, but the interior of her left ear was so badly marred by scarring and bacterial damage that it needed repair before she could receive the second implant in December.
Cochlear implants are like phones, Cosetti said, where new technology is introduced regularly. The “SlimJ” implant Teesa received is a very soft and thin wire that was “snaked” into her cochlea to provide sound stimulation to her inner ear. The inner implant will last for about 20-30 years before it needs to be replaced; the outer part of the system is updated regularly. “It’s seriously like a newborn baby learning to speak,” Arden said of Teesa’s journey toward hearing. “Not being able to hear didn’t stop her from doing anything. She’s like fearless and now all of a sudden she can hear and she’s still fearless. Nothing holds her back.” Arden and her husband were in the room when Teesa could first hear, something Arden calls an emotional experience for all of them. “She was hysterical, crying because it was all of a sudden. We’re all just staring at her waiting for her to make a move or do something and it was loud and it was strange, so it was very emotional for everybody,” Arden said.
Since Teesa received the cochlear implants, sound fascinates her, Arden said. She’ll bounce a ball against the floor and then the wall to hear the differences in the sound. The ring of the doorbell or a cell phone catches her attention. Because hearing is a critical part of speech and language development, those who receive cochlear implants are almost always playing catch-up, Cosetti said. Receiving cochlear implants isn’t like turning a light on, she said. Teesa needs to learn what the sounds mean and develop language like any newborn. “For Teesa, we know that her inner ear and her brain are getting sound for the first time, so for her, really the world's her oyster in terms of what she's able to do with that,” Cosetti said.
But despite the late start, she’s learning quickly. Teesa started first grade at Trumbull’s Booth Hill School in October, where she also learns sign language and receives speech therapy. Teesa and Gallagher also do many exercises together when she comes to speech therapy at Listening Partners in Westchester County three times a week. The goal of speech therapy is to teach Teesa how to listen and “grab onto the sounds,” said Gallagher, a speech language pathologist who specialises with children with hearing loss and deafness. The exercises teach Teesa how to discriminate sounds, and they help her learn words and concepts like “in,” “out,” “up,” and “down.”
One of the first lessons Teesa had was learning to put names to members of her family. Teesa’s first deliberately spoken word was “mama,” and the very first thing Arden taught her, even before she could hear, was “I love you.” “Now it’s so amazing because she can now hear our voice. It’s easier for us especially to communicate with her and she’s learning to communicate with us...It’s hard to put it into words exactly, how it’s changing our lives,” Arden said.