The Gift of Hearing … Hearing device provides extra Christmas present for local girl

John Dupont
FUN WITH MOM AND DAD … Katheryne Hebert kisses her dad David while the two were playing. The upgraded processors for her hearing implants have made it much easier for Katheryne to communicate with others.

A youngster from Plaquemine has enjoyed the sights of Christmas the last seven years – and this year, she can enjoy the sounds like never before.

Christmas came a month early for Katheryne Hebert, the daughter of David and Nichole (Panepinto) Hebert. Proceeds from a fundraiser last October at the C.M. “Mike” Zito Multipurpose Center enabled her parents to purchase an upgraded sound processor for her cochlear implants.

The upgraded processors arrived Nov. 11, and were activated about a week later. It cost $17,000 for the pair – almost exactly the amount of money raised at the event.

But the value of a much better ability to hear and decipher sounds will dwarf the cost of the devices.

“We’re very grateful for everyone who helped us here – we couldn’t have done it without their help,” he said. “We find that she’s communicating easier, and we’re also understanding her better.”

 “She’s within normal hearing range, between zero and 15 decibels,” he said. “Before that, she was closer to 20. Without her processor, she can’t hear at all.

The processor converts sound to a digital signal and shoots across a magnetic implant in the cranium, which is hooked to a wire that is linked to the cochlear nerve. The digital signal connects to a cochlear nerve. In time, the brain learns how to interpret it as sound.

“It’s just like normal hearing … almost,” David said.

Katheryne was born deaf and gained the ability to hear at age 2, after she underwent implant surgery.

She was supposed to undergo the surgery in New Orleans shortly after her first birthday, but Hurricane Katrina changed those plans.

“The hospital where they’d have done the surgery was wiped out by Katrina,” David said. “After six months of waiting, they sent us to Oschner’s, and they did a great job.”

The decision to seek the initial surgery was tough for David and Nichole.

“A lot of homework had gone into this – we didn’t just decide to implant her,” David said.

They tried hearing aids and even went through the deaf community for help, but decided to go one step further.

“We went with hearing aids first, and even went through the deaf community, but the deaf community frowns on implants because they feel there should be nothing to change deafness,” Nichole said. “If she gets older and doesn’t want to hear, she can take them off. We just wanted to give her the option.”

She went to Baton Rouge Speech and Hearing, then to pre-school and one year of kindergarten at Louisiana School for the Deaf.

Even with the first pair of processors, the ability to communicate was a bumpy ride.

“Her speech wasn’t very good,” David said.

The upgrade has already made a difference for Katheryne.

“Before the processor, we were about the only ones who could understand her,” Nichole said. “Now, she’s picking up syllables in words that she couldn’t pick up before, so now pretty much anyone can understand her.”

Katheryne was little bashful when asked about her improved hearing.

She sat at a table alongside her parents, playing a word game on her mother’s iPhone.

She listened to the directions on the game and responded to each command – something with which she would’ve struggled two months ago, her parents said.

“I like playing with this,” Katheryne said. “I couldn’t play with it if I couldn’t hear it.”

She also enjoys the sounds of her favorite programs.

“I love the songs on ‘Strawberry Shortcake’ and ‘Star Wars’,” Katheryne said.

Katheryne was playful – and, at times, feisty – with her parents.

David, in a light tone of voice, told her ‘I love you’.

She quickly jumped out of her chair and motioned to him while uttering the words “Zip it!” and “Daddy, you’re crazy!”.

David and Nichole gladly accept her spunky attitude.

“We found out she was deaf at birth – in fact, she was one month old. When we found out, we cried like babies. We held her, didn’t know what we could do … just ignorant, selfish, being able to tell my daughter I love her,” David said. “Now, seven years later, she hears us and talks to us, tells us she loves us, back-talks and everything.

  “We take the good and the bad,” he said.

It’s not only the home life that has become more conventional. Katheryne now attends school in a mainstream setting at the Math and Science Academy in Plaquemine.

“We’re hoping that gives her better tools for success,” Nichole said.

This year, she enjoyed something else like she hadn’t before – the Christmas caroling at her grandparent’s hayride celebration in Addis.

It marked another step on a path to appreciating life not only for what she sees, but what she hears.

“With the old processors, she was working at getting better, but something was missing – it was almost like she hit a wall,” David said. “With these new ones, it totally broke that wall down.

“It’s a very nice Christmas present,” he said.

WORD GAMES … Katheryne Hebert, 7, listens to the directions on a word game she plays with her mother, Nichole. Katheryne can now appreciate the sounds as well as the visuals of such games, thanks to an upgraded processor for the hearing implants she acquired last month.