UNC Health Talk

In Her Brother’s Footsteps

On Sept. 16th, the Children’s Cochlear Implant Center at UNC celebrated their 1,000th pediatric cochlear implant patient—a little girl named Tatum Lanier, whose older brother received a similar device at the center in 2010.

Tatum Lanier is a smart and happy one-year-old girl fond of keeping her mother Melinda on her toes.

“She wakes up with a smile and keeps it all day long,” says Melinda. “She is very curious and is always ready to learn new things. She loves playing with her big brother Gavin and thinks she can do anything that he can.”

Tatum and Gavin were both born deaf. Gavin, now seven, received a cochlear implant at the Children’s Cochlear Implant Center at UNC in 2010. On Sept. 16, 2015, Tatum had her own cochlear implant activated.

Holly Teagle, AuD, executive director of the Children’s Cochlear Implant Center at UNC, says activation is an exciting experience, not just for the patient, but for their family and providers. “Every single time we activate an implant, it’s amazing.”

Melinda, John, Tatum and Gavin Lanier

Cochlear implants were first approved in 1990 for implantation in children by the Food and Drug Administration. Since that time, the number of children receiving an implant at the Children’s Cochlear Implant Center at UNC has been steadily rising. The center currently places well over 100 implants a year.

Tatum’s cochlear implant is the 1,000th to be performed on a pediatric patient at the Children’s Cochlear Implant Center at UNC. Melinda hopes that Tatum will be as successful as Gavin has been with his device.

“The device has been so amazing for Gavin,” Melinda says. “We have been looking forward to Tatum’s activation day for weeks. We are just so ready for her to hear and enjoy sounds as much as Gavin has.”

Melinda and her husband John first met at a camp for deaf children and became fast friends. They soon learned that his family had a beach house close to where she lived. As they got older they remained close, eventually marrying.

“I married my best friend,” Melinda enthuses.

When their oldest son Gavin was born, his hearing loss first went undiagnosed, deriving from a genetic mutation that the Laniers’ local provider in Snead’s Ferry, North Carolina, was unable to test for. When his impairment was discovered, a friend recommended an audiologist at UNC Hospitals.

“They took him in right away,” remembers Melinda. “They had the right tests there to figure out what was wrong with Gavin’s hearing. We learned that Gavin might do well with a cochlear implant and they helped us to make a decision about whether he should have the procedure.”

Such a procedure can be a big decision for parents, especially parents who grew up in the deaf community where cochlear implants have sometimes been controversial. Some advocates in that community believe that their way of life is fully functional and worry over the effect cochlear implants might have on the use of American Sign Language (ASL).

Like any concerned parents, Melinda and John were determined to learn as much as they could about the device and the procedure. They talked to physicians, audiologists, speech pathologists, educators—anyone who could give them more information to make the right decision for their children.

“My children still use ASL, but the cochlear implants will make it easier for them to communicate with the hearing world, too, and that will make their lives easier.”

The decision came down to what was best for Gavin and Tatum.

“Our question was always, who wouldn’t want to help their child? We would do anything to make our children’s lives easier. We have five senses and if one of them isn’t working and can be corrected, then why not?” says Melinda.

With the help of their cochlear implants, Tatum and her brother will be raised in both the deaf world and the hearing world.

“My children still use ASL, but the cochlear implants will make it easier for them to communicate with the hearing world, too, and that will make their lives easier,” she says.

Two years old when his hearing loss was correctly diagnosed, Gavin received his cochlear implant relatively late, says Teagle. “If a child is a good candidate, we try to plan their surgery around their first birthday so they can start learning language and be on track with their peers by kindergarten.”

After their experience with Gavin, the Laniers decided to remain with UNC Hospitals when they learned they had another child on the way. “When I found out I was pregnant with Tatum, John and I knew there was a possibility that she might be deaf also,” says Melinda, “so we went ahead and made an appointment for a hearing test at UNC.”

When a cochlear implant is activated, children have to learn how to hear before they can begin developing their language skills, so getting the device activated early is important. Gavin adapted well to his device. With her activation on Sept. 16th, Tatum has a head start on her brother.

“When Gavin’s implant was first turned on, he didn’t know the word ‘hear’ and he was trying to communicate with me that he had heard something,” recalls Melinda. “He kept looking at me and pointing to his ear. It was very sweet. Being able to hear has been amazing for Gavin and we’re hoping to have the same kind of success now that Tatum’s cochlear implant has been activated.”

Activation begins a long process that requires engagement from children, parents and providers. “A cochlear implant is a tool,” says Teagle. “It’s not like turning on a light switch. It doesn’t restore normal hearing to a deaf child, but it makes hearing possible. It has to be used in conjunction with speech therapy and other resources.”

Learning to hear is an ongoing process and an important part of this process is empowering patients and their parents to take an active role in their development. To help him stay on track, Gavin meets with a speech therapist at his school almost every day for an hour and the Laniers have hired a therapist who works with him at their home once a week.

Tatum Lanier during her activation appointment at the Children’s Cochlear Implant Center at UNC.

Teagle says that the benefits of a cochlear implant for the child can be immense. “The technology works so well, but it takes a team to help the child develop. Once they have acquired a language base, they are unrestricted to achieve their potential.”

Melinda is hopeful that Tatum’s activation will allow her to continue to follow in her brother’s footsteps. “Gavin’s hearing range and speech development have improved each year since his activation and we want the same for Tatum,” she says.

For Melinda and her family, it is the attentiveness of the staff at UNC Hospitals that has kept her coming back to Chapel Hill for her children’s care.

“Our experience at UNC has been so wonderful,” she says. “The staff takes great care of my children and makes sure we are satisfied with everything before we leave. After the great care Gavin received there, we knew it would be the best place for Tatum also, so we kept UNC as our place for our children!”

For more information about the Children’s Cochlear Implant Center at UNC—the little place for big miracles of sound & speech—please visit our website at https://www.med.unc.edu/earandhearing.