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Sound and Silence

With the stress and emotion of the first two post-activation weeks behind us, Christian and I waited and watched for the magic of the implant to take hold. It didn't take long. "Duh, duh, duh. Noy, noy, noy." Those were the first magical sounds we heard. Geneva had always been very vocal, but she had never babbled with consonants and with such variety. And she began mimicking our mouth shapes, too. "A cow says 'mooooo,'" I'd both sign and say to her, and she'd pucker her lips and make a faint "ooooo" sound. Almost one month post-activation, she turned and looked up at the DHMC helicopter, which regularly flies over her day-care center. A child who once couldn't hear a chopper with its blades thumping just a few feet away was now pointing up at one flying overhead. Surely that was close to magic.

Before her second month of hearing was over, Geneva began saying "hi" and, most importantly, "mama," which she used to her advantage. What hearing mother of a deaf child wouldn't stop whatever she was doing to pick up a child who'd just called out "ma, ma, ma"? Geneva was responding to environmental sounds, too—a car driving by, a fan turning on, a door slamming, people's voices.

Now, five months after her activation, at age 18 months, Geneva turns to her name and seems to respond to all sorts of sounds, no matter how soft or distant. She can say "hi," "bye," "mama," "daddy," "yeah," "kitty," "grandma," "milk," "diaper," "apple," "cheese," "ooo" for "shoes," "vrum-vrum" for motorcycle, "eeee"—as in "wheee"—for swing, and lots of animal sounds. And her comprehension of spoken language is taking off, too. "It's time to brush your teeth," I'll say, without signing, and she'll head to the bathroom to get her toothbrush. "I see a dog. Do you see a dog?" I'll say, again without signs, and she'll point to a picture of a dog. And, to my great relief, I can call her name when she's about to do something dangerous, like stand on a chair or touch something sharp, and she'll turn to my voice.

Of all the measures of progress, the one that lifts my spirits higher than any other

When she was born, Geneva couldn't hear a helicopter at full throttle a few feet away. Today, above, with her implant, she points to a plane she hears flying overhead as her mom signs "airplane."

Geneva's comprehension of spoken language is taking off. "It's time to brush your teeth," I'll say, without signing, and she'll head to get her toothbrush. Her hearing will likely improve still more and is already comparable to that of someone with only mild to moderate hearing loss.

is Geneva's new audiogram. When the audiologist showed me the results of testing we did in a sound booth just two months post-activation, I felt for the first time pure and unrestrained joy for what the implant could do. Geneva's hearing—which will likely improve still more—is already comparable to that of someone with only mild to moderate hearing loss. Suddenly the audiogram, with all the little drawings that I spent so much time fretting over after her diagnosis, looks so full of potential.

I understand now more than ever before what the author of Rebuilt felt when he walked the halls of his old nursery school with watery eyes and a lump in his throat. "What I felt was joy: joy at the opening of human potential, at the destruction of barriers, at the flowering of lives that might have been limited and shuttered," he wrote. And while I might take issue with the presumption that being deaf and having no access to sound would lead to a limited life, I take no issue with his statement that "for profound deafness to be rendered ultimately a nuisance—surely that was occasion for tears of pride and gratitude."

I began this journey grieving for all that was lost, or that I thought would be lost, because of Geneva's deafness. Now I am filled only with gratitude, with a desire to give thanks to all who have traveled the journey of deafness before us, and to all who have sought to make that journey easier. Geneva will bear the fruits of their labor.

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Jennifer Durgin has been a senior writer at Dartmouth Medicine since June 2004. Her other recent features for the magazine include "All Together Now," about a collaboration between DMS and Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering that is the nation's most advanced effort to develop effective alternatives to mammography, and "Compound Interest," about two promising chemopreventatives that were developed at Dartmouth and are now in clinical trials.

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