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Deaf Toddler Hears for First Time with Brainstem Implant

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Alex Fredericks hears for the first time after a gadget was implanted in his brain at a Boston hospital.

The 17-month-old Alex, at the time, was deaf but a gadget that is yet approved for children in the US made the difference. The device was directly implanted in to the brain of the young boy.

Alex was delivered prematurely at seven months old and only weighed just four pounds and four ounces at birth. He was put in the neonatal intensive unit at St. John Hospital in Detroit for the first one month of coming in to the world. His premature delivery cost him a lot of challenges. Doctors could not recognize that he suffered from a heart condition from the scans and also appeared to have visual impairment. Most noticeable was his inability to hear. He failed the hearing test carried out on all newborns. Two months later, he could not pass the hearing test.

Phil Frederick, Alex’s father, said that was a big blow, adding that the most difficult part for him was his failed hearing test as he thought all was going to improve with time. He further said that it broke his heart.

Alex is a brother to two elder sisters, Evelyn, 6, and Izabella, 3. Phil once watched Evelyn play with her little brother.

Phil noticed that Alex could not hear when he was playing with Evelyn. He realized that she could not get a response from him when she was doing something with a toy. Curious, Evelyn asked his dad how Alex was going to play with her and other children wishing him not to be deaf.

At the age of 1, Alex’s parents went for a cochlear implant, a technology that stimulates auditory nerves through the use of electrodes. It has been in use for the last 40 years. Due to the irregular structure of Alex’s inner ear, the surgery was halted halfway after surgeons realized it would not work. He still has the scar behind his right year up to date.

He had to go for medical checkups about his heart condition and then begin sign languages.

Phil resorted to technological solutions in order for his son to hear. He realized an approach for children pioneered in Italy by Dr. Vittorio Colletti, which was to undergo clinical trials in U.S. before FDA approval.

It is known as Auditory Brainstem Implant (ABI) consisting of a small antenna which is implanted on the brain stem to pick up signals from a tiny microphone won on the ear and then send them as electrical signals in to the brain’s hearing senses.

Phil contacted U.S. hospitals hosting the clinical trials and requested Alex’s inclusion on the list.

On October 5, 2013, Alex was taken to Boston for the operation that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars which got settled by the family insurance company. It took five and a half hours for the surgery after which Alex was taken to intensive care. He later went home to recover.

After several weeks, Alex went back to hospital where the gadget was turned on and his sisters were to try first if it worked. At first, Alex could not respond to any sound made in the room.

Surprisingly, Alex turned towards the sound of a doctor slamming the keys into the side of a desk. He could hear it seemed. That was the beginning of a long journey.

Every month, Alex and his parents have to go to Boston for continuous tests where doctors fine-tune the electronics inside his skull.

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