Copyright 2010 The Barton G. Kids Hear Now Foundation. All Rights Reserved.

Delivering The Gift of Hearing

Thomas Balkany, chair of the Department of Otolaryngology, says that UM Ear Institute's spacious new facility will help optimize the state-of-the-art care the institute provides for hearing-impaired children and their parents.

The Cochlear Implant Program at the University of Miami Ear Institute is one of the world’s leading centers of its type.

Michael Lefkowitz, a seventh-grade honors student at one of Miami’s leading private schools, plays several sports, reads at college level, has studied three foreign languages, and last year won a national award in the WordMasters Challenge. He considers himself a pretty typical 13-year-old.

Were it not for an extraordinary team at the Miller School of Medicine, however, there’s a chance this modest young man never would have achieved all these accomplishments. He is one of the more than 1,000 patients whose lives have been changed by receiving a cochlear implant at the University of Miami Ear Institute, part of the Department of Otolaryngology and UHealth-University of Miami Health System.

Established in 1990 by Thomas Balkany, Hotchkiss Professor, chair of otolaryngology and a Miller School alumnus, the Cochlear Implant Program is one of the largest and busiest in the world. When Balkany joined the University, he had already performed implants on more than 100 patients, and under his leadership the program has become a leading international center for performing cochlear implants as well as conducting research and training in the procedure and its technology. “We loved Dr. Balkany from the first time we met him–he is kind, knowledgeable, and understood the surgical and emotional impact on both the patient and family,” says Sherilyn Adler, Michael’s mom. “We trusted him completely.”

When Michael was 3 months old, Adler and her husband, Robert Lefkowitz, discovered that Michael had profound bilateral sensorineural deafness. He was immediately fitted for hearing aids and received auditory verbal therapy to help him learn to listen and speak. Although the hearing aids and therapy proved very effective, the introduction of aids with stronger amplification impaired his sense of balance.

“We were forced to look at the alternatives, and a cochlear implant was the first choice,” says Adler. In surgery performed by Balkany, Michael received his implant in January 1997 when he was 17 months old. Soon thereafter he could speak complex sentences up to 14 words, understand speech in noisy surroundings, and attend school in regular classes with hearing children. Four times a year he returns to the institute for a “mapping”–a tune-up of the implant.

Unlike a hearing aid that amplifies incoming sound, a cochlear implant is a computerized device that bypasses the damaged hair cells in the inner ear and converts sound waves into electrical energy to stimulate the auditory nerve. Since approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1985, the devices and their utilization-some 100,000 implanted to date-have advanced tremendously.

“Cochlear implants were made possible by computer miniaturization and power, advanced microsurgical techniques, and powerful antibiotics,” says Balkany, a world leader in the field who holds 13 implant patents. “Microsurgical techniques allowed us to work on the inside of the ear, and better antibiotics meant that if a patient got an inner ear infection, we could control it. The average deaf person with a cochlear implant understands about 80 percent of what he or she hears and can use the telephone.”

Over the years, Balkany and his colleagues have played a pivotal role advancing the implants. He has trained about 300 surgeons and the institute has trained 100 more to perform implants. They also offer outreach programs to teach the procedure, including an annual course at the American Academy of Otolaryngology.

In the research realm, the team has participated in nearly every FDA clinical cochlear implant trial over the past 20 years and actively works with manufacturers in developing and testing experimental implants. Taking their work a step further, cutting-edge National Institutes of Health-funded investigations to restore hearing are pursued in molecular genetics, in collaboration with the Miami Institute for Human Genomics. Research studying the use of stem cells to generate new hair cells in the inner ear is also being conducted.

The Ear Institute’s escalating activities are now supported by a new facility. After years of operating in several locations, earlier this year it moved into a single, dedicated space, occupying the entire fifth floor (20,000 square feet) of the Clinical Research Building. “This is a unique, high-tech facility that provides our patients with diagnostic and treatment capabilities that are unsurpassed anywhere,” says Balkany.

With these enhanced resources, Balkany and his team will continue their life-changing work, restoring the precious sense of hearing one patient at a time.

“When you get a diagnosis of profound deafness, it raises questions about the quality of life for your child,” Adler says. But, thanks to early identification and current scientific technology in combination with intensive surgical and therapeutic intervention, Michael can now lead a life similar to that of a hearing person. We’re eternally grateful to the University; the implant team has become like extended family to us.”

Adds Balkany, “Our mission is to allow all deaf people to hear within the next ten years.”