For children with profound hearing loss, cochlear implants are often the only way to be able to hear. However, in Vietnam for example, this technology is barely affordable. Here, with Sonova volunteers and partner organizations, the Hear the World Foundation has launched a pioneering program.
The excitement is almost palpable in the little examination room in the children’s hospital in Hanoi. Tung Lam’s parents have long been craving this moment. In an operation five weeks earlier, doctors gave their son a cochlear implant from Advanced Bionics, a Sonova brand. Today is the big day of activation: experts from Advanced Bionics and Sonova Vietnam have traveled to Hanoi for this purpose, working as volunteers for Hear the World, a Sonova Group initiative. Together with the Global Foundation For Children With Hearing Loss (GFCHL), they have meticulously prepared for this moment and now supervise while Vietnamese doctors activate the implant.
The electrode inserted into the cochlea can now transmit electrical signals to the cochlear nerve – this then sends pulses to the brain, which identifies these as sounds. The parents’ nervousness increases. Will their son finally hear? Will he be able to live a life without limitations later? Several seconds pass, as Tung Lam looks around, still somewhat confused, but then the three-year-old beams from ear to ear. He hears his mother’s and father’s voices clearly for the first time. The relief is plain to see on his parents’ faces. At this moment, they know their son stands a chance of having a future like that of any other child. Tung Lam should learn to speak well enough to be able to attend regular school later and maybe even study.
Tung Lam was born prematurely. His parents soon noticed that something was wrong with his hearing, says his father Bao Ngoc: “Tung Lam didn’t react at all to sounds like handclaps or a slamming door. But we never would have thought his hearing loss was so severe.” An examination showed that Tung Lam could hear almost nothing in either ear. In such cases, hearing aids are not enough. Cochlear implant technology is the only hope. However, like in many countries, there is no insurance coverage or state subsidization for these hearing implants in Vietnam. Tung Lam’s family could not afford to cover the costs. For the time being, they arranged for their son to be given hearing aids, so that he could at least perceive a few sounds. Tung Lam also began auditory-verbal therapy, in which he made rapid progress.
Lam’s auditory-verbal therapist told his parents about the joint aid program “CI Vietnam” run by the Hear the World Foundation and the Global Foundation For Children With Hearing Loss. Their son is now one of ten children, for whom the Hear the World Foundation is funding the latest cochlear implant systems from Advanced Bionics, and covering the costs of the examinations and operation, through the HearVietnam program.
Tung Lam’s mother Mai remembers the moment when she found out that her son had been chosen for the program: “I got the call when I was at work. Out of sheer happiness, I burst into tears and my hands were shaking so much that I could no longer hold anything. All my workmates congratulated me and shared my joy.”
This project, the first of its kind in Vietnam, donates cochlear implant systems and also provides comprehensive long-term follow-up care. “We have already been active in Vietnam for several years,” says Elena Torresani, Director of the Hear the World Initiative. “Since 2010, we have been cooperating successfully with our project partner, the Global Foundation For Children With Hearing Loss (GFCHL). In Vietnam, the GFCHL trains local professionals to be auditory-verbal therapists. These go on to assist the children learning to speak, as well as their families. Local expertise is essential, so that the children can develop their speech skills.”
After activation of the cochlear implant, Tung Lam can hear, but now a time of intensive training begins for his family. While children with normal hearing start babbling away quite naturally, Lam first has to learn to distinguish between sounds and must practice talking. He is being given one year of auditory-verbal therapy by Vietnamese professionals. Tung Lam should learn to speak well enough to be able to attend a regular school later and develop normally for his age. For successful learning, parents are also important. They are given training on how to handle the cochlear implant, plus tips about playful ways in which they can help their children.
Apryl Sweat, Director of Global Sales Development at Advanced Bionics and Foundation Board Member at Hear the World, became acquainted with Tung Lam and his parents in the context of the aid project in Vietnam: “I was impressed right away at Lam’s responsiveness to sounds as well as his parents’ knowledge with how best to interact with him. They jumped right in with play activities that reinforce listening and learning for Lam. This is the exact recipe for success.”
Audiologists from Sonova Vietnam provide the families with long-term audiological follow-up care, free of charge. This is a decisive factor and the most important element of this project, says Sunil Kapoor, Director Advanced Bionics Southeast Asia and Hear the World Volunteer. He has been at the company for 15 years, and has precise knowledge of Vietnam and the circumstances there. He coordinates the various individuals and offices involved in this aid project. Donation of a cochlear implant system is a very complex matter in terms of logistics, the operation and especially the follow-up care.
“After activation, you have to ensure that the whole family can cope with the challenges that the cochlear implant entails,” explains Sunil Kapoor. “Replacing a single cable costs around 100 US dollars, for example. If the parents earn about 300 US dollars a month, that’s an enormous sum. A child shouldn’t be left unable to use their implant after a few years, just because something breaks and the family can’t afford to get it repaired.” That is why the organizations involved in this project make sure that the children receive care until adulthood. During that time, the families are given everything that is necessary for their children to be able to hear with the cochlear implant and to learn to talk. After those 15 years or so, they should also be able to use and maintain their cochlear implant independently. All these efforts pursue one common goal: to enable the children to live a life without limitations.