Brinley Reiswig is 15 months old, but only last month did she start hearing her mother's voice and the other sounds in her world.
The Modesto girl, who was born deaf, is experiencing sound with the help of cochlear implants, which should allow her to learn to speak and enjoy the same opportunities as other children.
These surgically implanted electronic devices were first made in the 1980s for adults who were not getting results from hearing aids.
Today, children of Brinley's age or younger are receiving the implants because of evidence their brains have a better chance of adapting to sound and learning language.
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"We felt it was in her best interest to have the implants," said Shandra Reiswig, her mother. "The studies show the sooner she gets started with the implants, there is a much higher success rate for getting the full capabilities of her implants."
Soon after Brinley was born in the hospital, she failed a newborn hearing test in one ear. But nurses told her parents that the tests are not very reliable.
By the time Brinley was 7 months old, it was obvious she was not hearing. Loud noises never startled her. She would not respond to her name or turn around in her crib when her parents greeted her in the morning.
Reiswig and her husband, Rod, persuaded doctors to refer Brinley to Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland, where in December she was put to sleep for two hours for a brain study. The test showed Brinley did not respond to any sound, her mother said.
Reiswig used an iPhone application to learn sign language and started teaching it to her daughter. Her mother-in-law then saw a television news segment about cochlear implants for young children.
In late March, Brinley received implants for each ear during a six-hour operation at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital in Palo Alto.
The cochlear device consists of two main components: a sound processor and transmitter worn around the ear; and a receiver and electrode system implanted under the skin with cords attached to nerves in the inner ear.
A magnet connects the external components to the implants, and when the system is activated with a remote, signals from the sound processor are transmitted to the receiver under the skin. The receiver sends electric currents to the inner ear, creating a sense of sound.
When her implants were switched on in April at the Palo Alto center, Brinley was frightened by her first experience with sound, her mother said. She screamed, tried to pull the processors off and then pointed to the door -- her sign that she wanted out.
She soon became accustomed to sound, however, when the implants were activated at home. Her purple sound processors, sporting cheetahs and zebras, would not stay on her ears at first, so Reiswig fashioned headbands to keep them in place.
New things to learn
Now that Brinley has the implants, she must learn to understand this new dimension in her life.
A speech therapist and two other teachers from the Stanislaus County Office of Education come to the Reiswig home every week to work with Brinley.
They are trying to get her to associate sounds with the things that make them. As she progresses, she will learn that a cow moos and a duck quacks and that other sounds are associated with words.
It could take Brinley from four months to a year to start speaking, but she is making progress and vocalizing a lot more, her mother said.
"If the phone rings, we make sure to take her to the phone so she knows where the ring is coming from," Reiswig said.
Brinley often plays with a toy kitchen stove that makes a variety of noises. Exercises teach her to associate actions with words.
For example, her parents let out an exaggerated "whoosh" when their daughter goes down a slide.
One of her teachers gives Brinley a toy fishing pole, and as she reels in a fish, the teacher repeats "up, up, up."
Brinley has more fun with her 3-year-old sister, Danica, who no longer is frustrated when trying to get her to play.
"She is more engaged with her surroundings now," said Pam Martinez, a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing for SCOE.
Martinez said most of SCOE's young charges with cochlear implants have learned language and are in regular education classes at school. Some require the help of a sign language teacher; others don't need assistance.
Martinez said her 7-year-old son received the implants after he was diagnosed with severe hearing loss. "He talks nonstop and he is fully mainstreamed in school," she said.
Reiswig wants to send Brinley to the Jean Weingarten Peninsula Oral School for the Deaf in Redwood City for intensive speech and language therapy. She will ask Mo- desto City Schools, which is responsible for providing special-needs education, to cover the tuition.
Portia Miller of Modesto said the district pays half of the annual $60,000 tuition for her son to attend the Children's Choice for Hearing and Talking center near Sacramento. The other half is covered by the school's fund raising, she said.
Her 3-year-old son, Bryson, got his first cochlear implant because of nerve damage in the inner ear and a second implant in March.
Some parents opt for two implants because of evidence the patient hears more clearly.
"He now hears equally well on both sides, so he understands a lot more," Miller said. "He loves to hear sounds and figure out what they mean."
Brinley's surgery to implant the internal device was not flawless. A spinal fluid leak is a complication in a small percentage of cases, and her doctors had to stop leaks on both sides.
There is some risk of infection with the implants, so patients are vaccinated for bacterial meningitis before the surgery.
Reiswig said the risks were outweighed by the opportunity to give her daughter the gift of hearing.
The Modesto City Schools secretary doesn't seem fazed by a layoff notice she just received. She said it will allow her to devote full attention to her daughter.
On a recent walk in their neighborhood, Brinley turned to watch birds rustling in the eaves of a home and flipped her head around to look at a passing truck.
"We have come a long way in the past few weeks," Reiswig said. "It is definitely getting better with time."
Shandra Reiswig keeps a blog about her daughter's experience at www.beautifulbrinley.blogspot.com.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2321.