Dr. Marilyn Neault describes what Trever, 5, who was born with profound hearing loss in both ears, heard the day his cochlear implant was turned on as a unrecognizable garble of sounds.

It hits them all at once, some smile, others cry.


"I just remember seeing his little face look up," said Walpole resident Heather Ross, mimicking the awestruck look of her son, Trever Ross, when he went from being completely deaf to hearing at 12 months old.


Dr. Marilyn Neault describes what Trever, 5, who was born with profound hearing loss in both ears, heard the day his cochlear implant was turned on as a unrecognizable garble of sounds.


"Some of them, if they've never heard before, just have a sensation in their head and they don't know it was caused by an external event," said Neault, director of the Habilitative Audiology Program at the Children's Hospital Boston at Waltham.


She is being honored by the Clarke School for the Deaf for 25 years of helping children like Trever adjust to, and make sense of a world of sound.


"It's a gradual process that requires expert therapy," she said of the transition from hearing to speech recognition.


The implants, a rudimentary version of which was first used in 1961, are electronic devices that bypass the ear's normal hearing channels and connect sound via electrical impulses to nerves in the brain.


A half-dollar size speech processor, which is magnetically attached to the side of the head and connected to an earpiece, transmits and translates the sound.


But for an infant, child, or even an adult who has never heard before, the newfound ability can be confusing, harsh and useless without years of training.


"One family said to me cochlear implants are not for the faint of heart," said Neault, stumped to come up with a surgery that requires as much follow-up treatment.


Neault follows most of her patients into adulthood, continuously testing and adjusting implants for optimal hearing.




Trever talks about making meatballs to "Dr. Marilyn," who has been a fixture in his life since infancy, as if talking to a friend.


"Do you know the meatball song? I'll teach it to you," offers Neault, who embodies quiet and ease from her speech to her movement to her soft pink nail polish.


"Everyone calls her Marilyn, she has one name just like Cher. She's so approachable and doesn't insist on doctor," said Ruth Crocker, regional development officer at the Clarke School for the Deaf, which prepares many of Neault's patients to join public schools.


With the help of Neault, who leads a premier team of speech pathologists, doctors and psychologists, children learn to speak as well as their hearing peers and even carry a tune.


"The bats go ee ee ee all through the house," Trever lilts, bashfully singing a Halloween song he learned at the Clarke School for the Deaf to the tune of "The Wheels on the Bus."


"I'm not much of a sporter," said Trever, dismissing the idea of tennis lessons, content to rattle a tambourine and bang a pair of golden cymbals before his appointment.


Although Neault has worked in the field for 35 years, her eyes still open wide when she describes advances in technology and expectations for deaf youngsters.


"They even have a connection here that can be attached to an iPod," she said, lifting a small plastic flap to reveal a plug-in at the bottom of the earpiece.


Neault said the hospital is working toward being able to help doctors in foreign countries perform the surgery and administer therapy over the Internet.


"It's really sad, we get requests all the time from parents from other countries just for the surgery, but if they can't stay here for treatment, at least for a year, then it is not in the child's best interest."


Even those who do receive the necessary treatment will never have perfect hearing - cochlear implants can detect a range of about 100 tones, as opposed to the 1,000 distinguishable by a normal ear, and cannot detect very soft sounds like rustling leaves - but they do have one advantage.


Maximum volume is controlled so the painful sounds of a jet engine or a rock concert are only as loud as a person talking into your ear.


"At a NASCAR race the kid with the implants is probably the most comfortable one," Neault said, smiling.


The lighthearted air that Neault and her team foster is one of the things that helped Trever and his mom get through hours of counseling, treatment and checkups.


"We've just been so lucky," Ross said. "I'm not going to say it's an easy road, but it's a different one and we've had so many resources here. There's nothing that's been a bad experience."


MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News staff writer Lindsey Parietti can be reached at lindsey.parietti@cnc.com.