Jan. 6, 2013 at 12:31 PM ET
The video touched millions: An 8-month old boy smiles with unabashed adoration at his mother as he hears her voice, seemingly for the first time, thanks to a new cochlear implant.
Posted on YouTube in April of 2008, the video of "Jonathan's Cochlear Implant Activation" has received more than 3.6 million hits and thousands of comments from viewers, many clamoring for an update.
Five-year-old Jonathan is “doing great,” according to his parents, Brigette and Mark Breaux of Houston, Texas.
"He's in kindergarten and we're working on speech," Brigette, his 35-year-old stay-at-home mom, told TODAY.com. "He can hear everything that we say to him. It's of course artificial hearing but he can hear and understand what we're saying."
"He's a flirt," adds Mark, a 36-year-old corporate controller. "He was chasing girls around the playground when Brigette went to see him for his class party. He's a handful."
He's also a bit of a miracle. On Christmas Eve of 2007, when Jonathan was just four months old, he contracted bacterial meningitis, an infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord that can result in brain damage or death. He was hospitalized and recovered; however, the infection took a heavy toll on the boy and his parents.
"We've definitely had some challenges," says Mark, explaining how his son now uses a "walker" on wheels to help him with balance issues. "The meningitis left him with the equivalent of cerebral palsy."
It also left him deaf. And in those stressful days following his meningitis diagnosis, his parents had to make a huge decision.
"We were in the hospital and because of the meningitis, we only had a couple of weeks to decide if we were going to do the cochlear implant," says Mark. "The cochlea was hardening because of the meningitis. We had a limited window to make a decision and if we didn't make it, it would completely ossify and we would never be able to do the implant in the future."
The Breauxs decided to go ahead with the surgery -- and to post videos of the results on YouTube in order to help other parents going through the same experience.
"We don't know why bad things happen and this is not one anyone would ever have in their plans," says Mark. "But we look at everything like there's got to be a purpose behind it. We wanted to make the best out of everything and that includes Jonathan's story and putting it on a platform for others to learn from."
What exactly is a cochlear implant?
"It's a medical device that provides auditory input for people who have severe to profound sensory-neural hearing loss," says Dr. Jerry Lin, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Texas Children's Hospital.
The implant consists of both internal and external components, says Lin. Once the internal component is implanted surgically, the external components -- made up of a microphone, speech processor, and transmitter -- pick up sound, filter it, and send it to the receiver/stimulator and the internal electrode array.
"The child wears something that looks like a hearing aid that hangs on their ear and has a microphone as well as a processor in it," says Lin. "Then that is connected to the stimulator which is attached via a magnet to the internal component."
Approved for use in children in 1990, cochlear implants do not result in "normal" hearing, however they can help a deaf person understand speech.
"If normal hearing is like watching HDTV, using a cochlear implant is like playing Pong," says Lin. "I want to say that it sounds like a robot but not necessarily a monotone robot. You can detect changes in intonation, but it sounds electronic."
As of December 2010, approximately 219,000 people have received cochlear implants worldwide, according to the FDA. Here in the U.S., about 42,600 adults and 28,400 children have gone through the surgery.
Not everyone is eligible for a cochlear implant, says Lin. And not all people who are eligible choose to have them.
"Some people don't look at the inability to hear as a handicap," he says. "And since they don't look at it that way, they don't see a need to offer a means for auditory input. They have the ability to communicate with whomever they wish without difficulty."
Jonathan's parents say they were aware of the controversy surrounding cochlear implants, particularly in infants and young children, and admit they struggled over the decision to get an implant for their son.
"We spent lots of time praying about it," says Brigette. "We didn't know the side effects of the meningitis. We didn't know his physical limitations, if he'd be able to sign. We tried to give him the best quality of life."
Both parents say they're now positive they did the right thing.
"It was just an amazing experience knowing that he could hear us again," says Brigette, recounting the moment in the video when Jonathan reacts to her voice for the first time post-surgery. "We hadn't been guaranteed anything. We didn't know if it would work or not. We didn't know what his brain would be able to do after the meningitis. Being able to see his reaction like that was so sweet. It helped us know we had made the right decision."
The video posted on YouTube shows the moment Jonathan's cochlear implant was activated. As his mother says, "Hi Jonathan!" and coos to him, the pacifier drops out of his mouth and his whole face lights up in a huge smile.
"Makes me smile every time I see it," one person commented on YouTube last week. "Just beautiful."
Mark, who recorded the video, is elated by his son's accomplishments.
"His progress is growing every day," he says. "It's phenomenal. The bacterial meningitis he had was one of the worst kinds possible. The doctors and therapists who've been around him the last five years say it's a miracle what he's doing today. There's no limit for him."
Today, Jonathan is in kindergarten, attends speech therapy three times a week and uses both sign language and speech to communicate with others.
"In the last year, we've noticed his vocabulary is growing," says Mark. "A year ago, he was speaking barely one or two words but now he's combining words and enunciating much more clearly because of the speech therapy and just being able to process what we're saying. I think all of the input -- sounds, speech as well as sign language -- have given him multiple elements for communication."
But even with all of these elements, his mother says he's still a very stubborn little boy at times.
"I'll tell him to leave his sister alone but he's not going to that," she says. "He has selective hearing, just like any 5-year-old."
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