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TOP NEWS    Saturday, April 20, 2002

Quebec boy makes progress after implant

A year after a Vermont surgeon implanted a hearing device in his ear, Ryan Duchoeny can order a meal at his favorite fast-food restaurant. His family brought him to Burlington for the surgery after the province of Quebec refused to pay for the procedure. The government said Ryan didn't need it because he already was fluent in sign language.

By: Nancy Remsen
Free Press Staff Writer


MONTREAL -- Ryan Duchoeny sits on the floor between Yousaf and Sana, two third-graders who, like him, have had cochlear implants that allow them to hear.

Teacher Penny Packard puts one hand in front of her mouth to prevent Ryan from reading her lips and points to a square on an old calendar. "What is the day?"

Ryan, 10, answers quickly and the teacher can tell that his answer was "August 3."

"That is the date," Packard corrects, enunciating the sound of the "t" in the word "date." Then she repeats her question. "What is the day?"

"Sunday," Ryan says quite clearly.

A year ago, a surgeon at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington implanted an electronic hearing device deep in the curled cochlea of Ryan's right ear. A month later an audiologist turned on a tiny computer processor, and sound entered Ryan's previously silent world. Now the deaf boy is determined to speak and to decode what he hears.

His parents, his teacher and the director of the Montreal Oral School for the Deaf all say his progress is remarkable.

"It is beyond all our expectations," said his father, Frank Duchoeny. "It has improved his quality of life. He is not dependent on having someone interpret for him."

The miracle of Ryan's hearing isn't just that his cochlear implant works. It is also that his parents, Frank and Noreen Duchoeny, refused to accept a ruling from the government of the province of Quebec that Ryan's surgery could not be underwritten by the government. Ryan was ruled ineligible for the implant because he was fluent in American Sign Language. A government doctor said Ryan would gain little from an implant because he was too old to make significant progress differentiating sounds into words and learning to speak.

In Canada, the government pays for health care and decides who is eligible for specialized and expensive medical procedures such as this ear implant.

Unable to have the surgery done anywhere in Canada, the couple brought Ryan to Burlington. Friends have helped them raise most of the $40,000 cost of the operation and follow-up visits. They continue to challenge the government's ruling in court.

"It is a good thing that we had done the surgery and then went to court," Frank Duchoeny said. "We can prove a benefit."

The proud father's favorite example of his son's progress is his ability to order his own breakfast at a restaurant near their apartment in Chomedey.

His mother offers her own example. "When he comes home and wants something and I say no, he'll call Frank."

Lots of spunk

Six months after his surgery, Ryan transferred from a school where children are taught in sign language to the Montreal Oral School for the Deaf. Each weekday he makes the half-hour ride in a van from home to the downtown school where his classes are held.

Martha Perusse, director of the Montreal Oral School, said she worried initially that Ryan would feel isolated and insecure because no one uses sign language at the oral school. "We went very slowly. We all said if this doesn't work out, we will back out."

"His signing really helped him to have an understanding of what language was all about," Perusse said. American Sign Language is not English in gesture, but another language with its own rules.

"He just fit in beautifully," she said. "He is a spunky kid."

The privately funded school serves 220 children from infancy through high school. The goal, Perusse said, is to give the children the skills they need to return to their neighborhood schools. The program offers support until they graduate.

Packard, Ryan's teacher since September, has taught deaf children for 30 years. Her cozy classroom in the cavernous, old elementary school is plastered with written words. No matter what subject she is teaching, she said, vocabulary is the heart of the lesson. Hearing youngsters build their vocabularies from infancy, but not deaf children, she said. "They are years and years behind in vocabulary."

Packard wears a microphone that amplifies her voice for the children wearing hearing aids as well as those with cochlear implants. She covers her mouth or stands behind the students to force them to listen to her voice.

On a recent afternoon, she moved behind Ryan and questioned him on a story she'd written about another student's upcoming cochlear implant surgery. He wiggled like any 10-year-old full of pent-up energy at the end of the school day.

Packard was testing Ryan's ability to hear and understand her question and his skill to respond with a grammatically correct sentence spoken in a clear voice. He finally focused and answered her question.

Later, the teacher commented, "He has always had such a strong attitude toward wanting to listen and try. He might never have clear, clear speech," she added, "but he is not discouraged."

Learning English would seem challenge enough for these deaf children, but this is Quebec where French is the dominant language. So, three times a week, Ryan's class receives instruction in French. Packard said, "They are putting on a play this spring in French."

She notes that Ryan also takes Hebrew at his local synagogue.

Packard predicts a bright future for Ryan. "He is so keen and enthusiastic," she said. "Ryan is going to be OK, absolutely."

Contact Nancy Remsen at (802) 229-9141 or nremsen@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com