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Grown but Not Forgotten

By John Kelly
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page C12

Children's Hospital treats mainly children, of course. But the relationships its staff develops with young patients don't stop when they grow up. My assistant, Julia Feldmeier, met a young man who owes his hearing to Children's.

S teven Jennings was horsing around in gym class one morning in the fall of 1994 when a fellow eighth-grader started yelling at him.

_____Children's Campaign_____
Washington Post columnist John Kelly is raising money for the Children's National Medical Center, one of the nation's leading pediatric hospitals. You may make a tax-deductible contribution online anytime between Nov. 29th and Jan. 21st. Thank you for your support.
_____By John Kelly_____
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Steven stared at him blankly. The classmate jabbed him further: "What are you, deaf?"

He hadn't been when he'd awakened that morning -- he'd heard his alarm, his mom's voice, the school bell -- but at that moment in gym class, he wasn't sure.

"I was 12 years old. I didn't know what to think," Steven recalls. "I didn't even know what deaf was."

For the rest of the day, Steven's hearing faded in and out, the normal hum of school punctuated intermittently by spells of silence.

Steven's doctor shrugged off the fluctuating as a buildup of wax. He put in a few drops, admonished Steven to keep his ears clean and sent him home.

The drops didn't help. As days went by, Steven's hearing worsened.

In December, he went with his family to the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City for a Christmas show in the mall's foyer; the only sound he heard was the audience clapping after each number. A few days later, right before Christmas break, Steven woke up to silence.

His mom whisked him to Children's Hospital, where the doctors gave him an MRI and diagnosed the problem instantly: A cyst was growing in Steven's inner right ear.

Steven would never recover hearing in his right ear, doctors said, but there was hope for salvaging his left ear. During a week in the hospital, they scraped out the cyst and did a biopsy on it, monitored his left ear for signs of unusual growths and fitted that ear with a hearing aid.

Although he was fully deaf in his right ear, the hearing in Steven's left ear remained relatively stable until his freshman year in college at Bowie State. Again, just before Christmas, his hearing cut out.

He hightailed back to Children's, where David Schessel, a doctor with the hospital's ear, nose and throat department, discovered that the cyst in his right ear had returned -- and it was nearly three times its initial size.

Again, Steven went under the knife to have the cyst removed, but it wasn't enough. For the next two years, the hearing in his left ear fluctuated. Even with the steroids and diuretics Dr. Schessel prescribed to reduce inflammation and stabilize his hearing, "it was unpredictable at this point," Steven said. "Nobody knew what was going on."

Although Steven tried to keep a positive attitude, his unsteady hearing took its toll. He had trouble being a server at a restaurant because he couldn't hear people's orders. Advisers pushed him to rethink his major in psychology because of the limitations his hearing would impose; discouraged, Steven switched to computer science.

"Everyone kind of made me prepare for the worst," Steven said.

Not so at Children's. In the fall of 2003, Steven approached Dr. Schessel about a cochlear implant, a surgical insertion of electrodes in the inner ear, designed to compensate for damaged nerve cells. He'd discussed the possibility of the implant with doctors at another hospital, but they'd subjected him to a wait of several months.

Dr. Schessel lined up Steven for the operation in less than two months. At the time, Steven was 21, and "I got the exact same service that I got when I was younger," he said.

The same treatment, with video games and ice cream?

Yep, Steven said. "I was babied the whole time that I was in Children's, and that was just so cool."

The implant took some adjusting to at first -- everybody sounded like cartoons in high-pitched voices, he recalled. But a month later, everything sounded regular again.

"I called everyone I knew, just to hear their voice," Steven said. "I was like a machine for the first few weeks, listening to music, going to movies."

His implant has given him a new outlook on life -- "the don't-let-anything-hold-you-back kind of outlook," as he referred to it.

He's since changed his major back to psychology, and he's working again, this time with autistic kids.

"I love it to death, because there's nothing like the feeling of making a child happy," he said. "That's what Children's did for me: Children's made me happy."

Hear, Hear

And your generosity makes me happy. We've had an amazing outpouring of support during my first-ever campaign for Children's Hospital. With just two more days to go, we've raised $542,183.04 toward our $600,000 goal.

Here's how you can be a part of this worthy effort:

Make a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To contribute by credit card online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital and click on "Make a Donation." You'll be greeted by a pop-up that takes you right to the donation page.

To contribute by Visa or MasterCard by phone, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200, then punch in KIDS and follow the instructions.

You can reach John Kelly at kellyj@washpost.com or 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or 202-334-5129.

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