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Surgical implant returns woman’s hearing

William Ferchland, Tahoe Daily Tribune
Dan Thrift/Tahoe TribuneMelissa Greenlee, also known as Echo, underwent surgery two years ago to have the Cochlear Implant installed to help regain some of her hearing.
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It was the first call from a boy that made Melissa Greenlee aware of the consequences of being deaf.

Greenlee, 25, who now refers to herself as Echo, recalled that evening while she was sitting with her family, eating dinner, when the phone rang.

On the other end was Mike, a fellow sixth-grader in Echo’s class, and he wanted to talk to her.



“I couldn’t hear him on the phone,” she said. “It broke my heart.”

Roughly 15 years later, Echo regained most of her hearing after losing the power of her ears when she was an 8-year-old student at Sierra House Elementary.



She underwent surgery two years ago when the controversial Cochlear Implant was placed in her left ear, providing her a live connection to a once-silent world.

Returning to South Lake Tahoe for a wedding, she took time to talk about her experience with the limited help of an interpreter. She spoke with patience, articulation and the occasional rueful glance at annoying ambulance sirens and interrupting passing trucks.

The device, which gives her a sense she once thought was lost, is the size of a yo-yo with two small external parts. A round nickel-shaped outer magnet clasps to the side of her head where it connects with an internal piece lodged inside the wall of her skull. It converts sound into electrical information that provides an amazing opportunity for deaf people.

George Gates sits in the Ear, Nose and Throat Department at the University of Washington. He’s performed about 130 Cochlear Implant surgeries. One of those implants now belongs to Echo, an enchanting person Gates said “everyone fell in love with.”

The technology for the implant has existed about 20 years and is the likely tool recommended by doctors for people who can’t find help from hearing aids, Gates said.

Echo suffers from auditory neuropathy, a condition in which the outer, inner and middle ear is functional but the sensory nerve from the ear to brain can’t carry natural sound impulses. The condition represents a tiny fraction of hearing loss cases for deaf people.

Echo was the first in California to be diagnosed with auditory neuropathy. There are about 80 people, mostly children, who are deaf from it.

“For some wonderful reason we don’t understand, if you stimulate the nerve directly with an implant it will carry information,” Gates said. “The reason this is of importance is many doctors feel that if the nerve is sick or not functioning properly, the implant won’t work. Melissa’s case is a good example it can work.”

After the five hour surgery at the University of Washington in August 2000, she had to wait a month for the activation.

Vertigo and dizziness followed the surgery for three weeks. The implant was hooked up during her first appointment at the audiologist on Sept. 11, 2000.

The first sound Echo heard was a “shhh” that came from the audiologist’s mouth, hidden by a piece of paper.

Returning to her Seattle home, Echo recalled having a smile on her face as her ears absorbed new sounds.

“At first it was overwhelming,” Echo said. “I went into my apartment and everything I did – walking, putting a glass down – made a noise.

“A lot of people take it off but I keep it in all the time. I soak everything in like a sponge.”

Bedtime, bathing or swimming and hot weather are times when the implant should be removed, Echo said, sheepishly adding that during yoga exercise, when the room becomes warm, she keeps the device attached.

One particular sound, along with voices and laughter, delighted her.

“The coolest sound is when you have a candle burning and when you blow it out. It makes a sound — not the blow sound — but the wick itself,” she said. “I never thought it would have made a sound.”

Topping the “uncool” list are noises from traffic, construction sites and the beeps from ATM machines.

Before the surgery, Echo was concerned that she would register the same noises that functioning ears hear. So she had her friends compile a list of the pleasant and annoying noises they find in the world.

After that first flip to turn on the Cochlear Implant, her worries were put to rest.

It didn’t bother Melissa when her hearing began to fade when she was a child. Until that call from Mike, she didn’t think about a future without hearing. She took sign language classes at Lake Tahoe Community College, learned to sign exact English and kept 80s Madonna songs in her head, such as “Lucky Star.”

At the onset of hearing loss, she bounced around California, visiting puzzled doctors from Davis, San Francisco, Irvine and Los Angeles. A hearing aid was experimented with for six months without positive results.

It wasn’t until a visit to the University of Irvine where a professor in the neurology department first questioned her ear nerve, and not the ear itself.

She didn’t force her friends to learn sign language and depended on lip reading for communicating. She couldn’t relate to anyone in the small town of South Lake Tahoe. Years later, she revealed she wasn’t proud of who she was.

It was her dad, Travis Greenlee, who recommended the transplant. At first Melissa refused, saying she wasn’t ready for such a big step. Travis was disappointed, but respected his daughter’s decision.

After graduating from South Tahoe High School in 1995 and taking a year’s worth of classes at LTCC, Melissa was ready for a change. Culture, diversity and city life beckoned the young woman so she packed her bags and headed to Seattle.

The change was immediate. She found a deaf culture that embraced her as an equal. Her liberal views and passionate ideas were welcomed in the rainy land known for its music, computers and coffee.

“I knew I needed more,” she said.

She picked up the name Echo, given by a friend of hers, and the change was complete. She became proud of the person she evolved into.

“Melissa was the person I was,” Echo said. “I’m not 18 anymore. I felt like I was reborn (when I moved to Seattle).”

In the end, Echo decided to get the implant to help her career and her life.

The decision was made easier since she could hear before her loss. But for other deaf people, the decision to “flip the switch” is more meaningful, she said.

“It’s an individual decision,” she said. “It’s a real controversial issue. Many deaf people don’t want one. They feel threatened by the Cochlear Implant. It threatens the deaf culture.”

Echo referred to a deaf friend, who works with abused deaf women, who decided to get the implant. So far, the friend hasn’t told her clients that she can hear.

In September, Echo will launch her own business called “Visually Speaking,” a place where people can be trained in American sign language — from pre-verbal hearing infants to parents-to-be and day care providers.

Plus, there is one sound she looks forward to filling her ears.

“I want to wake up in the morning in a forest,” she said. “I want to hear everything wake up.”

— Contact William Ferchland at (530) 542-8014 or wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com.


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