February is a pretty special month for Isabelle. She and her twin sister Jasmine celebrated their seventh birthdays on February 20. But February 4 belongs to Isabelle alone. “We call it her hearing birthday. It’s one year from the date when her cochlear implants were activated,” says Isabelle’s mother Vicki Labriola.
Diagnosed with progressive hearing loss shortly after birth, Isabelle was fitted with hearing aids at six weeks of age. But cochlear implants—surgically implanted devices that provide a sense of sound to the profoundly deaf or hard of hearing—were the best option. As her hearing loss progressed, hearing aids could no longer meet her needs. The implanted devices, provided in concert with services from Boston Children’s Cochlear Implant Program, could help Isabelle build language and communication skills.
Vicki and her husband Jason decided to proceed with the surgery in February 2014. They weren’t sure how it would work, because by the time Isabelle was scheduled for surgery, she was completely deaf in her left ear.
How did it work out? “It’s a whole different world from last year. Although Isabelle talked with us, she was very shy with other people. Now, she won’t stop talking. I think that’s because she is so much more confident in her hearing. She really lets people into her world,” says Vicki.
And it’s a wonderful world. There’s the magic of childhood—discovering classic books like “Black Beauty” and “Charlotte’s Web,” immersing herself in sports and enjoying family activities like mini golf.
Then there are the joys of hearing new sounds for the first time—rain drops on leaves, cats meowing, frogs croaking. “Every time she hears something new and asks ‘what’s that?’ we have to figure out what it is that she’s hearing for the first time,” says Vicki.
Isabelle has faced a few challenges since the cochlear implant surgery. She’s become quite the flag football player, but keeping the implants in place behind her ears while she sprints across the field is no easy task. After much trial and error, Vicki hacked a solution—low pigtails and a headband that covers the implants. Isabelle often completes her look by decorating her implants with polka dot or hot pink tiger stripe stickers.
“Her teacher of the deaf tells us she’s the perfect cochlear implant success story,” says Vicki. Four months after her surgery, Isabelle had completely caught up to her peers academically, and now, halfway through first grade, she reads above grade level.
Isabelle, who had been reluctant about the surgery, has become a fierce advocate for cochlear implant surgery. She’s noticed that a classmate whose cochlear implant surgery is scheduled for March is a bit nervous about the procedure. “I tell her, ‘Don’t worry; it not’s going to hurt. You’ll be asleep. You won’t feel anything.’”
And if she’s anything like Isabelle, cochlear implants will open up a whole new world.
Learn more about Boston Children’s Cochlear Implant Program