Aug 2020 Sun Port Charlotte

Eli Tovar UrzuaSitting on dad Jesus Tovar’s lap, Eli Tovar Urzua reacts to a sound made by a toy he was playing with shortly after a cochlear implant to restore his hearing was activated

When his mother told Eli Tovar Urzua that she loved him after a medical procedure he had undergone, it wasn’t the first time she’d said it. But it was the first time he’d heard it.

Born deaf to hearing parents Nancy Urzua-Alba and Jesus Tovar, 1-year-old Eli had received a cochlear implant to enable him to hear with his right ear. He’ll be getting another one for his left ear.

He was the youngest implant recipient in Sarasota Memorial Hospital history, a milestone made possible when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lowered the age of paediatric cochlear implantation in March to 9 months for children with bilateral, profound sensorineural hearing loss.

The approval came just days before all the state’s hospitals were ordered to put elective surgeries on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic. Eli’s surgery was delayed until June but the delay won’t be a significant setback, his surgeon said. “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 normalised that baby’s life is going to be,” said ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Jack Wazen, of The Silverstein Institute.

Children begin to pair the sounds of speech with meaning between 6 months and 1 year, he 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. In Eli’s case, the first sound he processed was his mother’s voice for the first time, telling him softly, “Hi Buddy, I love you, I love you.” Sharon Rende, director of Audiology at The Silverstein Institute, activated Eli’s implant. “For me it’s emotional every time,” she 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.” She will now be working with him to ensure his implants are adjusted to an optimal level.

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 when 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,” mom Nancy said, “because I know this is just the beginning of another journey.”

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