Eleven-month-old Julian Epstein sat between his parents in a private room in the Hearing and Speech Center with a team from NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, his attention on the stuffed elephant in his hands. His care team had decorated the room with presents, a cake, and silver balloons that spelled out “Ace,” Julian’s nickname, meaning “the highest, luckiest, most valuable card in the deck” to his parents, Tracy DiMarco-Epstein and Corey Epstein. Also in tow were Julian’s grandparents, aunts, uncle, cousin, and two older sisters, as they all waited for a special moment in Julian’s life: He was going to hear for the very first time.
The day Julian was born, Tracy and Corey were told that he failed two newborn hearing tests. They noticed soon after that he wasn’t responding when they spoke to him. After Julian failed two more hearing tests, his pediatrician suggested they see an audiologist. When they met Dr. Michelle Kraskin, an audiologist and the assistant director of Audiology and Speech Language Pathology at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Dr. George Alexiades, an otologist/neurotologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, they knew immediately that they had found the help Julian needed.
“We just fell in love with them,” Tracy says, adding that the whole care team quickly felt like family. Still, the news the team delivered took time to process.
The auditory brain response (ABR) hearing test given by Dr. Kraskin confirmed that Julian was profoundly deaf in both ears. After an MRI showed that the nerves in his ears were intact, making him a candidate for a cochlear implant, the family chose to move forward with the procedure. A small, electronic hearing device would be surgically implanted to help provide a sense of sound.
“The implant is made up of two parts,” explains Dr. Kraskin, who has a doctorate in audiology. “One part is the internal electrode, which is permanently implanted under the skin, and the other part is the external processor, located behind the ear. The processor takes acoustical sounds and converts them into electrical signals that the brain can interpret as sounds.”
Dr. Alexiades adds, “Unlike hearing aids, which amplify sounds, cochlear implants do the work of damaged parts of the inner ear, or cochlea, to provide sound signals that get transmitted to the brain.”
Tracy and Corey were concerned about putting their infant son through surgery, but decided to put their trust in their team. On March 19, 2019, Dr. Alexiades, who is also the director of the Cochlear Implant Center at Weill Cornell Medicine, performed surgery on Julian’s right ear and implanted an electrode in the cochlea, or inner ear, to stimulate the auditory nerve. After the three-hour procedure, he delivered good news: The surgery was a success and Julian would be ready to have his implant activated as soon as he healed.