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UChicago surgeon seeks new ways to empower families

Suskind never intended to write a second book. “I thought I was one and I was done,” she said. But seeing how his first book tied into a “bigger account than we have right now, that context matters and that structure matters, it just compelled me.” She still believes in the power of connecting, talking more and taking turns. The biggest challenge is to create a world where all parents can more easily do these three essential things.

Language and Deaf Community

Suskind’s big ambitions were born out of something small: the cochlea, a tiny snail-shell-shaped organ in the inner ear that helps transmit auditory information to the brain for processing. A faulty cochlea, whether due to injury or genetic factors, can lead to severe or profound hearing loss.

During his surgical fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, Suskind met Rodney Lusk, a pioneer in performing cochlear implant surgeries for children. Small devices include electrodes that are placed in the cochlea and used to stimulate the auditory nerve, allowing patients to access sound and spoken language. For children with certain types of hearing loss, cochlear implant surgery, particularly in the first year of life when the brain is most capable of learning to process sound, can be transformational.

Cochlear implants divide the deaf community, which sees deafness not as a disability but as a culture with its own rich language and distinctive way of life. Some believe it is unethical for parents – especially hearing parents – to make such an important decision on behalf of their deaf child, saying it deprives children of the opportunity to learn sign language. and connect to Deaf culture.

Suskind is quick to point out that she is a proponent of children learning sign language, which she considers equal to spoken language in every way. “Language is language is language,” she said.

Among his deaf patients born to deaf parents fluent in American Sign Language, many grow up bilingual, speaking and speaking. But for the 90% of deaf children born to hearing parents who are not fluent, she believes access to sound offers the best chance of developing strong language skills.

As Suskind’s surgical career progressed, she began to notice that her patients growing up in hearing homes performed unevenly when it came to these language skills. In an ideal scenario, a child who receives a cochlear implant early in life can pick up spoken language the same way a hearing child does: by listening to it, discerning its meaning, and possibly repeating it. This has happened for some of his patients, who over time have developed language skills comparable to those of their peers. But others hesitated.

Why, Suskind wondered, could two children from hearing households who received cochlear implants at the same age fare so differently? Something was missing, and Suskind considered it a professional duty and an extension of his Hippocratic oath to figure out what it was. “For me,” she said, “doing the right thing for my patient couldn’t end in the operating room.”

Seeking the answer to this mystery, she enrolled in a self-directed course on early childhood development. Suskind found mentors in “the Susans”: Susan Goldin-Meadow, Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology and Human Development Committee, and Susan C. Levine, Rebecca Anne Boylan Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology.

Levine was surprised to be approached by a colleague across Ellis Avenue – and a surgeon, no less: “I think most people get into a rhythm with their careers and don’t branch out from this way.”

Levine was more than happy to share what she knew. One of his specialties is the development of language following brain injury in children. His research has shown that environmental factors (i.e. family support, education, access to specialized therapy) have an underestimated role in outcomes for these patients. Injuries, even serious ones, can be overcome under the right circumstances.

Why can children thrive despite severe brain damage? It’s the same reason cochlear implant surgery works better in young children than in older ones: neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to form and rearrange connections in response to the environment.

Unlike our other vital organs, our brain is relatively undeveloped at birth. About 80% of brain development occurs from zero to three years of age. During this window, the brain is the only one able to adapt to the circumstances. If the left hemisphere is damaged, the right can resume its normal functions; If a congenitally deaf child receives a cochlear implant, the brain can learn to interpret sound.

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