A Baby Hears His Parents’ Voices for the First Time
Eleven-month-old Julian Epstein experiences the gift of sound.
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.
A New World of Sound
Less than a month later, on April 11, the big moment finally arrived. Dr. Kraskin, who had guided the family from the beginning, activated the cochlear implant — essentially turning the device on — and encouraged his parents to be the first people to speak to Julian. A hush fell over the room as Tracy softly spoke her son’s name. Julian immediately turned to her and watched her mouth as she spoke before a huge smile spread across his face. He then reached for her, nestling his head on her shoulder. Corey was next, then Julian’s sisters, Jayden and Skylar, who gave their baby brother kisses while signing and saying, “We love you, Julian.” With each new person who spoke his name, Julian whipped his head around to meet their voice, his grin growing ever larger.
“When he hugged me, it just melted my heart,” Tracy says. “He knows he can now hear my voice. I can’t believe this day has finally come. I’m so thankful.”
“The fact that he’s able to hear his sisters’ voices, and my voice, and his mother’s voice, it’s just a miracle,” Corey says. “We can’t ask for anything more than that.”
The family celebrated with a specially made cake in the shape of a cochlear implant, T-shirts that read “Hip Hip Hooray, Today is Activation Day,” and calls from family and friends who used FaceTime to see and talk to Julian. His care team joined in the celebration, too.
“We never know how a baby will react. Sometimes they get upset and cry, because it’s all so new and can be overwhelming, but Julian reacted extremely well,” Dr. Kraskin says. “It’s a very special day and we’re honored the family put their trust in us.”
Julian turns 1 on Mother’s Day, and Tracy is thrilled that her son will be able to hear his family sing “Happy Birthday” to him, something that she says she took for granted with her two girls.
“It was really important to me to make sure that he was able to hear us sing to him for his birthday,” she says.
Julian will receive his second cochlear implant, for his left ear, in the not-too-distant future and will start speech therapy to learn how to speak.
“The team here has been unbelievable,” Tracy says. “It was a big decision to go through with this surgery, and we’re so happy we did it for him.”