Profoundly deaf child hears words, sounds


WATCH NOW: Profoundly deaf child hears words, sounds via cochlear implants

Kimberly Nsakala, a second-grader at Lou Henry Elementary School who is deaf in both ears due to meningitis, signs the word “mama” to her teacher, Jill Bird, on April 29 in Waterloo.

CHRIS ZOELLER, Courier Staff Photographer

WATERLOO – Kimberly Nsakala sat at the small round table, her eyes glued to her teacher’s face. Jill Bird held up a pen and using both sign and spoken languages said, “Color?”

“Purple,” the second-grader said. She pronounced the word with effort, and as Bird nodded, Kimberly’s smile brightened the room. She repeated the word in her strongest voice — “Purple!” — both aloud and in sign language.

Jill Bird, who teaches deaf and hearing-impaired students at Lou Henry Elementary School, helps Kimberly Nsakala put on her cochlear implants, which she had recently received at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City.

Until last month, the Lou Henry Elementary School student had never heard the word – or any word — spoken aloud. Nsakala, the daughter of Congolese immigrants Moise and Cathy of Waterloo, is profoundly deaf in both ears.

In April, she received cochlear implants at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. After recovering from surgery, the devices were switched on in late April. Nsakala heard her first sounds since she was in kindergarten. “Mama” was her first word, and her dad “had the biggest smile on his face,” said Bird, who watched the activation process via Zoom. Bird cried tears of joy as she watched her young student’s face glow with delight. Kimberly’s mom was at work, and unable to attend. She watched her daughter’s first word on a cell phone video.

The Nsakalas said they are “so happy and bless God for this miracle.”

Bird, who teaches deaf and hearing-impaired students, said Kimberly has “leapt over hurdles large and small. She works very hard, and she’s so happy and proud of herself.” This month, the educator received a certificate of recognition from Iowa state legislators for her efforts to improve the lives of her students and their families.

Kimberly’s cochlear implants allow her to hear French, which her family speaks, and English for the first time after losing her hearing as a side effect of meningitis.

Kimberly was five and had just started kindergarten in the Congo when she became ill and was diagnosed with meningitis. “Her father told me that they sat for days in the emergency room and at the hospital with her. She was in a coma, and when she woke up, she could no longer hear. She stopped talking, too,” Bird explained.

Deafness is the most common after-effect of meningitis, according to the National Deaf Children’s Society. Meningitis is caused by a virus, bacterial or fungal infection. Approximately one in 10 children who have meningitis develop sensorineural hearing loss and become permanently deaf because of the illness.

Audiologists tested Kimberly’s hearing, and her deafness was so profound that she was unable to detect sound at all. If a child loses hearing after meningitis, the Meningitis Research Foundation says, there is risk of excess bone growth or ossification in the cochlea within weeks of the illness. The cochlea is the hearing part of the inner ear connected to the auditory nerve. Ossification can make it difficult to surgically insert electrodes into the cochlea for cochlear impacts.

Kimberly browses through a cup of colored pencils as she draws a picture for her teacher, Jill Bird.

In the meantime, the Nsakala family immigrated to the United States in 2019 and settled in Waterloo. Both Cathy and Moise work at Tyson Foods.

In January, Kimberly underwent a CAT scan and “doctors discovered that she didn’t have as much ossification as they thought, and she could be successfully implanted with cochlear implants,” Bird said.

Her parents speak French and had little to no English when they arrived. “Kimberly was unable to hear, unable to sign and had no way to really communicate. She used gestures for certain things. But she was the most animated and joyous kid I’d ever met. She thought I was ridiculous flopping my arms up and down to tell her my name was ‘Bird,’” the teacher recalled, smiling.

With her cochlear implants, Kimberly is hearing both French and English for the first time.

Unlike a hearing aid that amplifies sound picked up acoustically, a cochlear implant stimulates the auditory nerve using electrical current and an internal implant and external components, according to U of I Hospitals and Clinics. With practice and therapy, the implants are designed to increase the ability to perceive sounds and better communicate and understand language.

Magnets are used to hold the external components in place, something of a struggle for Kimberly “because her ears are so small. We’re being creative with ways to keep them on her head, including a headband,” Bird said.

She describes Kimberly’s ability to hear and process sounds as “still in the infancy stage. The more she wears them, the more quickly she will learn to hear and process sounds. She’s added ‘baby,’ ‘bee,’ her own name and other names to her vocabulary, and she continues to learn sign language.

“She’s just blossoming, and we’re very optimistic,” Bird added.