A WORLD OF NEW SOUNDS
By Chris Potter
For The Observer
He previously relied on the conductor to lead him through the vicious amplified sound coming through his hearing aids. It was easy for him to become lost in a sea of noises and to miss his drum beat in the in-audible cacophony.
This world of noise is fast becoming a landscape of beautiful individual sounds for Jeremy Williams, a La Grande High School senior.
Jeremy was diagnosed with severe-to-profound hearing loss when he was 3 years old. He started an early intervention program and was immediately fitted with hearing aids.
The hearing aids didn't help much. They only amplify sound, giving it less clarity. He was also given an interpreter who helped him until the 10th grade. Through a combination of sign language and lip-reading Jeremy was able to progress through school.
But he wasn't able to do so without an amount of reliance on others.
Teammates would have to tap him on the shoulder during a basketball game when a referee stopped play. Cars would honk as he rode his bicycle down the road, oblivious of their presence.
He lived a life void of the audible cues of bells, whistles and rings that hearing-people use.
Jeremy would sometimes use his hearing impairment as an excuse to not do certain things. At times he would think of himself as stupid, and people would sometimes treat him that way.
The more diverse background of high school would make Jeremy feel less different, but a surgery after his junior year would do even better. He would be able to hear.
A Cochlear implant is a coil of wire that is put into a hearing organ called the cochlea. Surgery is required to put the implant in.
After several weeks of healing a patient is fitted with a speech processor and microphone. The microphone and speech processor rest on the ear, much like a hearing aid. The implant and processor are connected by a magnet to hold the connection in place. An FM radio signal transfers the processed sound to the implant. The implant stimulates nerves in the cochlea, and the patient is able to hear.
Jeremy's hearing had been gradually declining his whole life. He hadn't given much thought to the implant because older models had lower success rates and were much bulkier than current models.
During his junior year Jeremy and his parents, Keith and Stephanie, began collecting information about the implant.
Jeremy was convinced when he saw a video of an implanted boy playing basketball.
The surgery was performed in Boise in May 2002. Jeremy's last memory before being put under anesthetic is of taking out his hearing aids.
He would never wear his left hearing aid again, but he had to wear the right one while his surgery healed.
After about six weeks of healing, Jeremy was ready to be fitted with his speech processor, which would allow him to hear his first clear sounds.
When the device was first connected the sound was too much for Jeremy to bear.
"It was so much to take in," he said.
A nearby computer was causing a buzz that made Jeremy tear off the processor immediately.
The following weeks and months would allow him to better appreciate the sounds around him.
He remembers hearing birds for the first time.
"I felt like I had missed a lot," he said.
Although the implant allowed him to hear sounds, he still had to learn what the sounds were.
While golfing Jeremy once dove for the ground when he heard what sounded like machine-gun fire. He was relieved when he found out it was only a woodpecker, tapping on a nearby tree.
While adjusting to his implant Jeremy has operated under a new motto.
"Stop and listen," he said. "You will hear something new everyday."
He is learning to hear everyday sounds, but is learning some of the subtler ones as well.
He is able to distinguish the engine sounds between different types of vehicles, such as diesel trucks and sports cars.
He can hear small sounds like light switches, and the running water of a fish-tank.
The sounds that Jeremy is most excited about though are the sounds of music.
Jeremy's father taught him how to play the drums during his sixth-grade year. Jeremy has continued to play in percussion classes throughout middle school and high school.
He is amazed at being able to hear individual instruments while playing with the high school Jazz Band. The soft sound of the flute was especially striking to Jeremy.
Instead of relying on the conductor, he has been able to keep rhythm with the other instruments in the band, which allows him to get into the music and to get to know his fellow band members better.
Keith has been stunned by the progress he has heard in his son's percussion practice at home.
Jim Howell, the La Grande High School band teacher who has taught Jeremy for six years, said the implant has "improved his life all the way around."
"I usually don't think of him as having a hearing impairment at all," Howell said.
Jeremy is on track for high school graduation this year, and plans on going to Eastern Oregon University next year. He hopes to go into a career where he can combine his love for music with an interest in computers.
He is taking a digital audio recording class with Howell where he creates and edits his own music on a computer.
Jeremy's implant has given him a more positive view on life, and an excitement about his future.
Learning to hear has also given him more confidence in himself.
"It's the best thing that's ever happened to me," Jeremy said about receiving the implant. "It's a really good feeling to hear."