Severely hearing impaired since birth, Sarah Churman had long managed to cope in a world where sounds came as if they were under water. But now, a surgical implant lets her hear her own voice, the sounds of birds singing, her two daughters chattering — and her husband snoring.
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“Yeah, that I didn’t listen to very long!” Churman told Matt Lauer on TODAY Monday as she recounted her first full week in the world of the hearing.
The pretty, 29-year-old Texan has became an internet sensation, thanks to a video taken by her husband, Sloan, as she heard her voice for the very first time last week. In the video, Sarah becomes overwhelmed with emotion, covering her mouth and bursting into tears, as she first hears herself talking. “I don’t want to hear myself cry,” she says and then laughs as she turns to her husband.
Sloan Churman posted the video on YouTube so friends and family could also witness the medical miracle, but a whole lot of others also looked in — 4 million at last count. Appearing with his wife, Sloan told Lauer he almost didn’t tape the groundbreaking family event at all.
“I nearly didn’t videotape it, if it wasn’t for my mother saying, ‘You’re GOING to video this, we need to see this,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done it, because this was intimate for us; this was like getting married or having a child. I mean, seriously.”
Sarah was born with a rare genetic deformity that means she's missing the hair in her inner ear that transmits sound to the brain. She was fitted with her first hearing aid at age 2, but even with that technology she could only hear some vibrations and loud noises. She compensated throughout her life by becoming adept at reading people’s lips.Story: Six days after cliff plunge, kids find dad
But earlier this year, Sloan Churman heard a radio ad for the Esteem Inner Ear Stimulator, billed as the only full implantable hearing aid for what his wife suffered from — sensorineural hearing loss.
The $30,000 implant was pricey for the working class family. But they saved and borrowed — Sloan’s mother helped out greatly — and in July, Sarah had the procedure.
She told Lauer “millions of things” went through her mind as she prepared to hear her own voice for the first time last week.
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“Half of me was just scared to death, that it was going to come on and I wasn’t going to like it, just because…this is all I’ve ever known for 29 years,” she said. “So the fear of the unknown, not knowing what it was going to sound like can be overwhelming. And it was just nervousness, (but) then the other half of me, ‘Oh hurry up and turn it on!’"
Sarah learned despite not being able to hear, she has a distinct Texas accent. “The funny thing is…the first time we traveled outside the country, everyone kept talking about our accents, so I was kind of surprised — I didn’t think I had an accent,” she told Lauer.
But perhaps the biggest blessing was being able to hear the voices of her daughters, ages 4 and 20 months.
“That was pretty amazing,” she said. “My oldest (is) quite the little talker; she sounds so grown up and very articulate. And my youngest, I can hear the Texas accent in her voice.”Story: Mom of 11 at Harvard: 'I seize the day'
According to TODAY medical correspondent Dr. Nancy Snyderman, the fact that Sarah has an accent and can enunciate words fairly clearly shows she has had some hearing ability, but the still-new procedure is a distinct improvement on what a regular hearing aid can do.
“The cool thing about this is it uses the normal anatomy of the ear, so it takes the little bones in the middle ear, sends them to a processor, then sends them to the nerve that goes into the brain, and all this garbled stuff is turned into sound, so she can really hear it,” Snyderman said.
“Hearing aids normally have a lot of background noise and distortion; this makes it much better. It’s a surgical implantation approved by the FDA, but only a couple of hundred people have them.”
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