By Meghan Salinas ’17
When Rodney and Summer Dethample discovered they were expecting their second daughter, they were overjoyed and excited to welcome their family’s newest addition. Months later, Sage Dethample came into the world as a precocious, bright-eyed, smart-as-a-whip little girl.
As the months went on, however, the Dethamples slowly began to notice subtle differences in Sage’s communication patterns, namely her listening and speaking abilities. By the time she was two years old, Sage’s parents began to realize she wasn’t responding to certain stimuli, like finger snaps or the sound of her name.
Although they first attributed her disregard for certain cues to her feisty and stubborn personality, it eventually became clear that something more was to blame.
One day while at home with Sage, Rodney, a lifelong martial artist, discovered that she had no reaction at all to the piercing sound of two sais colliding with one another. Typically made of steel, sais are three-pronged martial arts weapons that can make a distinctive, piecing sound.
“When you hit sais together and then put them near your ears, they make a harmonic sound and vibrate,” said Rodney. “I had her facing away from me and, after I hit them together, she never even turned. That told me right then — we need to do something.”
The Dethamples then took Sage to Fort Worth ear, nose, and throat specialist Dr. Ricardo Cristobal of Cook Children’s Medical Center who conducted certain tests in order to properly examine Sage’s hearing capacity. Rodney and Summer’s fears were confirmed when Sage was diagnosed with a profound hearing loss.
“I felt bad,” began Rodney, “but my wife felt worse. It was so hard to figure out if she was born like this or if it was due to something else, like a high fever. Even the specialists couldn’t say for sure.”
According to Dr. Emily Lund of Harris College’s Miller Speech & Hearing Clinic, hearing loss is one of the most common disabilities present at birth, occurring in one in 500 children. While there is no “typical” hearing loss case, Sage’s condition is of a degree that she has no access to sound whatsoever.
With Sage’s hearing loss diagnosed, she was equipped with a traditional hearing aid. She and her family were then referred as potential participants in a new study conducted by Lund. The study, funded by the American Speech Language Hearing Foundation, would examine the effects of training parents on early child language growth in children with hearing loss.
“During that time I got to know Sage as a really intellectually bright child and got to know her family a little bit,” said Lund. “And I continued providing them services even after the study was finished because TCU has the resources to do that.”
After using traditional hearing aids for four months, Sage showed no real improvement in her hearing or speech abilities due to the severity of her condition. It was at that time that the Dethamples began seriously considering a cochlear implant for their daughter. After speaking with both Miller Clinic staff and another family at the facility whose child had benefited greatly from the procedure, Rodney and Summer knew that receiving a cochlear implant could be Sage’s only hope for a more typical childhood.
Not approved for use in children until 1990, cochlear implants have since enhanced the hearing ability for more than 188,000 people worldwide. While traditional hearing aids merely enhance sound, cochlear implants work by stimulating the auditory nerve into producing signals that the brain then interprets as sound.
“The real miracle of the cochlear implant is that it gives a child who has zero access to sound access at a pretty high level,” said Lund.
After undergoing the procedure to receive an implant in January 2017, clinicians at the Miller Clinic immediately went to work helping Sage gain the ability to hear and speak.
Graduate student clinician Remi Locke has been heavily involved in Sage’s therapy. In the Miller Clinic’s aural rehab laboratory, Locke works with Sage nearly every Monday, teaching her the skills necessary to properly process the signals she hears. Locke also works to provide the Dethamples with strategies and skills they can practice in order to assist Sage as her hearing continues to improve.
Because Sage underwent therapy at the Miller Clinic both before and after receiving the cochlear implant, Locke has been provided with a unique learning opportunity by working with her. Locke says she’s learned a great deal about what goes into the hearing process and the preparation involved in planning care for a patient receiving a new cochlear implant.
“When it comes to hearing technology like this, you really have to learn to listen to the signals” Locke said. “When a child like Sage gets a cochlear implant, we’re really starting at square one.”
Still, Locke says Sage is expected to continue developing her hearing and listening skills at a very fast rate thanks to her lively personality and exceptional intelligence. Only a few months after receiving the cochlear implant, Sage’s hearing has been greatly enhanced and is expected to continue improving.
“The implant and the therapy at the Miller Clinic are probably some of the best things that have ever happened to us,” said Rodney. “Not only has Miller helped our child, they’ve also helped us as parents know how to guide her. I’m having to learn as she’s learning and teach her at the same time. Miller has taught us step-by-step what to do.”
The staff at the Miller Clinic have gone above and beyond. Not only providing emotional and therapeutic support for the family, the clinic also maintains contact with Sage’s school in order to give her the most thorough care possible. This has allowed her to have what Rodney calls a “triangle of support” between her family, her school, and her clinicians.
While the dawn of her young life may have had a bumpy start, Sage’s therapy has proven to be life-changing. The Dethamples say they dream of a future where Sage might someday help others with hearing loss. For now, the dream is simply for her to finally gain the ability to speak — a future which isn’t far off, thanks to the cochlear implant, her family, and the talented people at the Miller Clinic.
“You can’t put a dollar amount on what we’ve learned at Miller, including how everybody’s treated us,” said Rodney. “You can’t ask for anything better than that.”