Today is Leia’s fourth birthday, and doctors are giving her the greatest gift of all: she gets to hear her parents sing ‘Happy Birthday’ for the first time, all thanks to a pioneering brain operation.
Leia was born completely deaf and her parents Alison and Bob feared she would never hear a word they spoke. However, a revolutionary procedure, has allowed her to finally come out of the world of silence.
Mrs Armitage, 39, said: ‘We never thought for one minute we would get to sing Happy Birthday to Leia, and she would register it… it’s just amazing.’
The couple are from Dagenham in Essex. They were absolutely devastated when doctors informed them that their four weeks old, Leia was profoundly deaf.
Mrs Armitage, a Tesco manager, said: ‘As parents, that was the worst day, worse than being told Leia was deaf. We thought, “Well that’s it, she is going to live as a profoundly deaf child and her language will be British Sign Language.”’
Initially, the Doctors thought the cause was defective cochleae – the spiral-shaped cavities in the inner ear that convert sound waves into nerve impulses. This is often rectified with cochlear implants. But a scan showed Leia lacked auditory nerves that carry hearing information between the cochlea and the brain – something extremely rare, which affects a handful of children in Britain.
On her second birthday, Medics decided to test a new machine and checked for a miracle. However, they warned Leia’s parents there was no guarantee of success because initial scans suggested the device hadn’t worked.
Mr Armitage said: ‘That was a bad moment for us. We sat there thinking: “What have we done? We’ve put her through all this trauma, and quite possibly it’s not going to work.’
Mrs Armitage added: ‘When she was “switched on”, Bob and I didn’t see any difference in Leia. But the experts saw movement in her eyes. They saw she was blinking to loud noises, and they were thrilled.
‘Then, on the Tube home, we noticed she was turning her head when the doors were closing, and she’d never done that before. And we thought: “She’s hearing something!”’
Prof Saeed said it was ‘impossible to know’ how Leia experienced sound, but it was likely to be a very different sensation to those with normal hearing.
Her parents said Leia can now understand a wide range of words. Mrs Armitage said: ‘Her hearing has become really finely tuned, and she’s hearing some quite low levels of sound now. Nobody in their wildest dreams thought she’d get to that level with brainstem surgery.’
On her third birthday, they sang Happy Birthday but Leia had not really understood it, they said.
But over the past year her hearing has improved so much that she had started to enjoy watching TV and listening to music.
Prof Saeed said the team hopes to carry out more such operations on children lacking auditory nerves: ‘The alternative is a world of silence.’