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MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — Three-year-old Jada Strusz bounced around her parents' laps on a recent morning, playing Legos with her 6-year-old brother, Jaxon. The smiling toddler wore a brightly colored polka-dot dress and Mickey Mouse shoes that were a few sizes too big.
Jada smiles and plays with her brother like any 3-year-old. But unlike most others, she was born with a condition that makes her current abilities all that much more remarkable, The Free Press (http://bit.ly/1hEIwqm ) reported.
Jada was born deaf but wears cochlear implants that allow her to hear and communicate with the world around her. Thanks to them, she is a talkative toddler who communicates at an age-appropriate level.
Across the greater Mankato area, cochlear implants are giving kids and adults with profound hearing loss the chance to live normal lives in an auditory world. But it's not just the implants that are helping the kids, parents say.
Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato is home to an entire cochlear implants team and multiple audiologists who meet with families for years after surgery. And Mankato Area Public Schools district has in past years offered a special preschool program and offers para support for each student up until graduation.
All of it adds up to a program that helps kids thrive.
"If you talk to these kids, their speech is perfect (and) their articulation is perfect," said Ann Vaubel, an audiologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato. "They have conversations and participate in regular education curriculum without modifications to the curriculum. You have to meet them to see, and I never thought I'd see that."
Vaubel worked with kids in Mankato Area Public Schools for 29 years before retiring from the district after the school year. She noted that technology has gotten to a point where parents can ensure their kids don't miss critical learning time early in life.
A cochlear implant is an electrical device that mimics hearing. A microphone over the ear picks up sound, which travels by wire to a speech processor and is converted into electrical code.
The code travels to a transmitter attached to the side of the head. The sound is then transmitted to a receiver surgically implanted under the ear, and the receiver sends an electrical signal to an array of surgically placed electrodes. The electrodes stimulate the hearing nerve, bypassing damaged hair cells and allowing the brain to perceive signals.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the device for adults in 1984 and for children as young as 1 in 2002. The Mankato hospital started its cochlear implants program in 2005 with the thought of performing five to six surgeries a year, according to audiologist Jenne Tunnell, one of four pediatric audiology specialists in Minnesota.
Now, she said, the hospital performs 20 to 30 implant surgeries a year.
The hospital's audiologists begin working with the kids as soon as possible after diagnosis, helping parents ensure their kids develop foundational skills. Kids need to meet certain criteria to qualify for the implants, including limited benefit from a hearing aid, evidence of a functioning auditory nerve and a supportive family environment.
That support has been important for Jada, who underwent the implant surgery when she was about 15 months old. The first time her implants were activated was "pretty amazing," said her mom, Jenny Strusz.
"The first time the beep went off, she whipped around and looked at me like a deer in the headlights," she said. "It was an emotional day."
Tunnell said she never knows what to expect when the implants are activated for the first time. It takes time for implant recipients to develop their hearing, which they accomplish by working weekly with the hospital's audiologists.
"It's not like you see in the movies," Tunnell said, adding that successful children have parents who are creating a lot of language for them at home.
The audiologists coach parents on techniques to develop auditory skills and help kids discriminate and recognize different sounds. The hope is the kids are well prepared for kindergarten.
Vaubel worked with the kids through high school, maintaining close relationships with them and their families. She helped them develop strategies for improving communication, learn how to identify and ask for accommodation and assisted with their technology.
The results, she said, are staggering.
Nine-year-old Jackson Verschelde is one of the many kids with cochlear implants who has worked with Vaubel over the years. Jackson, a fourth-grader-to-be, plays football and basketball and is in regular classes in school. He said he's looking forward to being active with his friends this school year and having a good teacher.
"I don't think he'd be where he is at if we didn't have the resources we have here in Mankato," said his dad, Glenn Verschelde.
The parents of 7-year-old Taqyudin Abdi appeared to share that sentiment. The family came to America from Somalia in 2005 and speaks both Somali and English at home. Taqyudin got his implants when he was about 2, and his parents said they saw an immediate change.
They said Taqyudin is a fast learner — the first kid in his kindergarten class to go to the second reading level this past year. He's also learning Arabic so he can study the Quran.
Jada Strusz appears well on her way to success, too. She's very confident in herself, Jenny Strusz said, and starts chattering in the morning once her implants are activated.
The family connected with the nonprofit Minnesota Hands & Voices after Jada was born. The group offers parent-to-parent to support for families with kids who are deaf or hard of hearing. Now, Tunnell is using the Struszes as advocates.
"I don't want other families to feel how I felt that day," Jenny Strusz said of the day she heard about Jada's hearing loss. "It was just a 180 of emotions. I wanted to give back to other families."
Information from: The Free Press, http://www.mankatofreepress.com
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