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May 2018 Winnipeg Free Press

The first time Ireland Gault heard her mother’s voice she bawled. Now a curious, babbling little one year old, Ireland was just 10 months old in February when she received a cochlear implant, becoming the youngest Manitoban yet to undergo the procedure. "I have to admit it was very anxiety-provoking," said Ireland’s surgeon, Dr. Darren Leitao. "It’s one of those things where we spend hours and hours and hours preparing for all the potential complications… but it went well, it went really well.” Ireland’s successful implant paves the way for more deaf Manitobans to get implants before their first birthday. Quicker diagnoses and earlier interventions, including cochlear implants, are tied to improved speech and language development and fewer behavioural problems, Leitao said. "It’s a really big deal," he said.

Ireland and her parents, Courtney Duke and Will Gault, were on hand Monday morning for a celebration of Manitoba’s surgical hearing implant program in honour of National Speech and Hearing Month. Since the program began in 2011, 177 adults and 65 children have received cochlear implants. The average child is a little more than two years old when they receive an implant, although the goal is 12 months. It’s a goal made possible by the universal newborn screening program, which tests the vast majority of Manitoba babies’ hearing shortly after birth.

Ireland Gault

That’s when Duke and Gault were first given any indication that Ireland might not be able to hear. She failed the test in one ear. "We didn’t really think much of it, because they tell you that it could be water in the ear," Duke said. It would be several more months before additional tests confirmed Ireland had profound hearing loss. The news was hard for her parents. "I worried about her future," Duke said, "about her being a very vulnerable person."

Because Ireland’s hearing loss was diagnosed so young, Leitao was able to get her outfitted for a cochlear implant before her first birthday. It’s no small feat to operate on such a small human being. "We had to prepare for the fact that the anatomy is going to be smaller and less well-developed," he said, "the nerve structures may be in slightly different locations, the thickness of the skull and the bone is thinner and we have a smaller area to work in.” Bleeding, too, was an issue the surgeons spent hours preparing for. After all, Leitao said, "When a child is this small, even the smallest amount of bleeding is critically important to manage."

That’s where the Health Sciences Centre Foundation has helped the Winnipeg team prepare. The foundation has provided the funding for the hospital to purchase virtual, 3D-printed and augmented-reality bone models and set up simulations so that doctors can be trained on these surgeries well in advance of getting patients such as Ireland into the room. "She’s been absolutely a rock star in terms of her recovery," said Leitao. He’s thrilled the successful implantation can pave the way for more babies to receive the implants. Already, he said, there are several babies less than a year old who have been identified through the screening program and who are being evaluated for an implant.

"Today, in Manitoba, we can implant children who are deaf and give them the gift of hearing before their first birthday," Leitao said. "That’s a really exciting thing.”  Hearing can be a bit overwhelming for the baby at first, Duke said, recalling Ireland sobbing after hearing her mother’s voice for the first time. "I wasn’t expecting that reaction," she said, adding, "I was just happy that there was a reaction.” In the months since, Duke said, there have been many joyful milestones: Ireland heard her parents sing Happy Birthday when she turned one, she babbles to them, she turns her head when someone calls her name and she dances around the room with her mother to music. "We get to play and interact with sound," Duke said, "This is incredible technology. I’m so ecstatic that we get to be a part of it."

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