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. One year after the activation of the Cochlear Implant, the progress is substantial.
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 the Hear the World Foundation, 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 “#HearCIVietnam” 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 #HearCIVietnam 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 could hear, but a time of intensive training began for his family. While children with normal hearing start babbling away quite naturally, Lam first had to learn to distinguish between sounds and must practice talking. He was being given one year of auditory-verbal therapy by Vietnamese professionals. Therapists taught the families how to support their children’s listening and spoken language development and gave them useful tips on how to help their child at home.
One year after the activation of the CI, the progress is substantial: Tung Lam has learned to speak, he forms sentences independently and proactively, perceives his surroundings intensively and attends a regular kindergarten. In the beginning, his kindergarten teacher paid special attention to him and sensitized the other children to Tung Lam's reduced hearing, but this is no longer necessary. Tung Lam is a socially integrated and happy child like everyone else. The CI also has a big impact on the family life: Tung Lam now participates much more in family life and also plays with his older brother.
The program is not completed yet: 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.