Cochlear implants: Celebrating 30 years of hearing restoration in deaf patients

In 1987, at the age of 22 months, Caitlin Parton became very ill with meningitis and ultimately lost her hearing.

Her parents, Melody James-Parton and Steve Parton, grieved over their daughter’s hearing loss as if it were their own. As freelance artists, they figured all the things they loved and took for granted – like music, speech and the written word – would be lost upon Caitlin.

“Our whole world turned upside down,” James-Parton, who lives in New York City, told “It was devastating for new, young parents.”

“It’s a remarkable tool; I don’t think my life would be where I am today without it.”

— Caitlin Parton, law school student who has a cochlear implant

But, when a doctor suggested Caitlin undergo a relatively new procedure known as the cochlear implant, the Partons seized the opportunity.

“We wanted to keep her in the same culture as our family,” James-Parton said. “It made sense to us [as] people who loved the spoken word and music.”

At the time of Caitlin’s procedure, she was 2 and ½ years old – the cochlear implant had only been done a handful of times.   At the time, she was one of the youngest in the world to have it done.

Although it does not cure deafness, the implant restored most of Caitlin’s hearing.  Now a 27-year-old law school student, she credits her successful life to the implant.

“Without the implant, I am profoundly deaf,” Caitlin told “(With the implant), I am considered moderately deaf, and I do well one-on-one and in quiet situations. It gets difficult in a bar or noisy situations, but I’ve learned how to use the telephone, and I’m very comfortable now.”

The cochlear implant is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Cochlear™ is sponsoring celebratory events all over the country (click here to check out events near you).

The cochlear implant was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for adults in 1985, and for children in 1990, according to the American Hearing-Speech Language Association.  The FDA indicates infants as young as 12 months who have profound hearing loss in both ears are candidates for the procedure, while adults with moderate to profound hearing loss are eligible.

The surgery was invented in 1982 by Professor Graeme Clark, who implanted the first recipient that year in Australia, said Dr. Pete Weber,  chief medical officer for Cochlear ™ and a surgeon at Rocky Mountain Ear Center in Denver. The patient was 37-year-old Graham Carrick, and he was profoundly deaf; but according to Weber, Carrick has said every aspect of his life has changed for the better.

Weber said about 52,000 Americans have been implanted, but the number of Americans who can actually benefit from an implant is around 1 million.

“I have implanted patients in their 90s who are in good medical health,” Weber told, adding that children as young as 12 months can be implanted.

“Cochlear implantation surgery is the most rewarding procedure I do,” he said. “Being able to assist in giving back the gift of hearing is still a tremendous, emotionally gratifying experience for every individual patient I treat.”

How it works 

Cochlear implants work by picking up sound with dual microphones at the ear level, Weber said.   The sound processor, which sits behind the ear, converts acoustical sound into electrical sound, which is then transferred to an internal device via electromagnetic connection. The internal device allows sound to travel down the electrodes to the inner ear, where non-functioning nerve endings are bypassed, and the nerve is stimulated directly via the spiral ganglion cells, according to Weber.

When Caitlin first had her implantation, the external box was bulky.  But like a computer, she’s had several upgrades, and the device has become smaller and smaller over time.

“The external device is very small; there are no box or wires anymore,” she said. “Growing up, I had to wear a fanny pack that had a processor in it. Now, it just looks like a small hearing aid.”

Doctors like Weber urge parents to implant deaf babies before they turn 24 months old, because that is the time when language acquisition is occurring – and learning to speak will just become a natural process, like for any other child.

While some opponents say cochlear implants defy the deaf community, Weber insists implanted patients can still be a part of that community and learn American Sign Language (ASL) – but this way they still have the choice.

“Personally, I believe in giving every child the opportunity to hear,” Weber said. “An adult can make the choice to remain deaf . . .the real question is children, babies who do not have a choice. Parents have to make the choice for them.”

Caitlin, who said she reads lips and learned ASL in college, is glad her parents made the choice to have her implanted.

“It’s a remarkable tool; I don’t think my life would be where I am today without it,” she said.

According to Weber, the implant is covered by Medicare, Medicaid and most insurance plans.