Aug. 21, 2006

Technology, education blend for success for deaf girl

By Roz Kohls
Staff Writer

Annika Wanha, 4, is an amazing success story. Technology and education blended together in such a way that the deaf girl will be able to attend kindergarten with her normal-hearing peers someday.

Annika, the daughter of Allen and Rebecca Wanha, had cochlear implants surgically imbedded under her skin when she was 2 years old. She can hear now, but she is learning at a special school, Northern Voices, to also talk and listen, something she didn’t get to do as much as hearing children do before she had the implants.

“Do you want the toy?” her mother asked her a couple of weeks ago from their Litchfield home.

“Yeah,” Annika responded.

Later, Rebecca also asked her in normal speaking volume. “What happened to your battery?”

“It fell out,” Annika responded, just like any normal speaking and hearing child.

“She’s just an interesting scenario from day one,” Rebecca said.

Annika was born with completely normal hearing. When she was about two months old it seemed as if she had an ordinary ear infection.

However, it turned out Annika had a potentially life-threatening bacterial meningitis in her inner ear.

She was in the Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis for 15 days. It was obvious she had fluid in her ears, so surgeons inserted tubes in them and waited to see how much her hearing was affected or if it would return, Rebecca said.

Responses to sound are difficult to test when a child is an infant, so doctors put Annika to sleep and tested her brain responses instead. At that time she had moderate to severe hearing loss, said Rebecca, who works in admissions at Meeker County Memorial Hospital.

Annika was fitted with her first hearing aid when she was six months old. She seemed OK at first, Rebecca said.

The Wanha family, including their sons, Marcus, Daniel and Jonathan, were supposed to use sign language with Annika, but she refused to sign back. Also her hearing was getting worse.

Bacterial meningitis has a tendency to ossify the inner ear, turning it to bone. Annika’s hearing loss had progressed to profound.

Annika heard nothing at all in her left ear and only a little in her right ear. The Wanhas and Annika’s doctors decided the time was right for her to get implants, because hearing aids were not enough.

A cochlear implant consists of a microphone, speech processor or mini-computer, a transmitter, receiver and electrodes. It works by converting sound waves into electrical pulses and sending them to the brain.

Annika got implants in both ears. Most get just one implant. However, getting two seems to be a trend recently, Rebecca said.

“It’s just easier for her to pick up on sound,” especially which direction it is coming from, she added.

The processor or mini-computer can be re-programmed as needed. For example, one part of the brain processes music better than the other, so the programming can be adjusted if Annika doesn’t hear certain sounds, Rebecca said.

“Their brains just adapt,” she said.

The implants’ systems run on ordinary AA batteries. The processors have little lights on them that signal when the batteries run out of power, Rebecca said.

The implants work wonderfully, Rebecca said. At the Cokato Corn Carnival parade recently, Annika complained about the noise during the loud parts.

“This is so normal,” Rebecca recalled thinking.

She remembered when Annika was little and unable to hear, she slept through the fire trucks’ blaring sirens during the parade, she added.

But being able to hear wasn’t the end of the story for Annika. She also needs to learn how to listen and talk.

Annika goes to Northern Voices in Roseville for four days a week during the school year and a month in the summer.

“They really understand how this works,” Rebecca said of the school’s staff.

Northern Voices starts working with children in infancy, because the earlier in the language learning process, the better. It works only with children who are deaf and hard of hearing from birth through the early elementary grades.

The school also trains parents to continue to teach their children how to speak and listen.

The methods Rebecca learned at Northern Voices comes so natural to her now that she found herself using them with normal hearing children in her Sunday school class at Good Shepherd Church in Cokato, she said.

The goal of Northern Voices is to enable the students to join their hearing peers in neighborhood elementary schools as soon as they are ready.

That’s why the Wanhas are upbeat about Annika enjoying kindergarten with her normal hearing peers someday.

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