Jenny, Sam, Jason, Brian and Drew Quakenbush
A typical high school student, that’s Jason Quakenbush. Jason is the son of Brian Quakenbush who is the band director at Cave Spring High School. Jason plays in the band, hangs out with friends, plays soccer, watches TV, and likes music. And while there are many things about Jason that make him unique, there’s one thing in particular that is striking. Jason has cochlear implants. He’s had them since he was three years old and they allow him to hear.
From the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders website, Cochlear implants are “small, complex electronic devices that can help to provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard-of-hearing.” There are several parts to the implant: an external portion that sits behind the ear with a microphone and a transmitter/receiver and an inner portion that consists of a group of electrodes. The electrodes gather the impulses from the external portion of the implant. The impulses are then sent to another area of the auditory nerve. This allows the person to receive “a useful representation of sounds in the environment and help him or her to understand speech,” according to the NIDCD website. You can read more about the implants here.
Cochlear implants are very different than hearing aids. While hearing aids only amplify sounds, Cochlear implants help those nerve cells within the ear that are misfiring to fire correctly; in essence it’s like an artificial Cochlea, which is the auditory portion of the inner ear, basically the portion of the ear that allows us to hear. “Jason has auditory neuropathy and cochlear implants are the only thing that can help,” said his mother Jenny Quakenbush. “What he was hearing without any stimulation couldn’t be translated by the brain.”
Jason’s hearing loss was most likely a result of birth trauma, but his hearing loss was not easily diagnosed according to Jenny. “It’s a different kind of hearing loss… Jason could hear strong sounds, just not higher frequencies,” she said. In Jason’s case, he wasn’t hearing any intelligible sound, so a hearing aid would not have been able to help him. “A lot of people think they’re hearing aids,” said Jason’s mother, Jenny, “but they’re completely different… and the whole thing about turning it on and it’s magic, is wrong… there’s a lot of work that goes into it.”
And that work certainly started once Jason got the implant at three years old. He started therapy with an auditory-verbal therapist, who according to Jenny, are different than speech therapists. “They use the implant to actually listen and then identify and produce those sounds. It’s almost like being programmed. They’re trying to develop natural sounding speech. For kids with hearing loss; they need to be trained to inflect.” Around 8 years old, Jason’s parents decided that he should be fitted with bi-lateral implants in order to improve his hearing and allow him to localize sounds. “When Jason was first given the implants, they weren’t doing implants in both ears,” said Jenny. “Then they realized that it really is beneficial.” At first, Jenny and Brian weren’t sure how Jason would respond to having another surgery, “but fortunately, he really didn’t seem to mind,” said Jenny. “He got up, looked at the calendar, and said ‘okay.’”
Jason’s life is as typical as any other high school student. He doesn’t need any special classes or help, other than going to UVA every so often to get the implants adjusted. “I remember having to get the second surgery when I was 8, I was scared, but I was excited because I knew it would help me,” said Jason. When asked what it’s like being a freshman, Jason responded, “it’s pretty good… my favorite subject is band, but I really like gym too.” And when asked what he likes to do outside of school, he said, “I really like music… basically any kind of music. And I really like soccer too.”
Jason has also been in the Boy Scouts since he was in 1st grade and over the summer took a trip to New Mexico to a place called Philmont. Philmont is a Boy Scout Ranch which covers 137,000 acres and allows for camping, hiking and many other activities. Jason and his fellow scout troop went to Philmont and hiked 90 miles over the course of 10 days. “The tricky thing about Jason going to Philmont was that his implants run on batteries, which require electricity,” said Brian, Jason’s dad. He continued, “We had to do all this research because he was going to be away from electricity for quite a few nights. We finally found a battery for the implants that was a power sourced battery… it was portable and would hold the charge for a certain amount of time.” In the end, Jason had a great time and everything worked out. But the fact that he could go on this trip was important: it showed Jason and his family that Jason’s opportunities are virtually limitless.
Brian added, “We’re really proud of him… this could easily be seen as a handicap, but he doesn’t have any limitations.” Jason lives a completely typical life, but when his parents found out he was going deaf they looked at each other, and said if there’s technology out there to help him, they would find a way to make it work. “We have opportunities for a reason, so we took that opportunity,” said Jenny. And while the implants are right for the Quakenbush family, Jenny stresses that they are not for everyone. “This was the right choice for our family. But everyone has to make that choice for themselves,” she said. “We had to make the decision for him, but I know we made the right one.” When asked if he thought they made the right decision, Jason said with a smile, “yes, I definitely think they made the right choice.”