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Deaf teenager excels in the world of sound

From left, Turner Hitt, 17, and his mother, Maryann Smithwick, manager of corporate health at Phoebe East, have both seen the benefits of the early detection in hearing loss in infants. Despite being born deaf, Hitt has managed to excel both intellectually and artistically.

From left, Turner Hitt, 17, and his mother, Maryann Smithwick, manager of corporate health at Phoebe East, have both seen the benefits of the early detection in hearing loss in infants. Despite being born deaf, Hitt has managed to excel both intellectually and artistically.

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Having a background as a nurse, Maryann Smithwick might have been quicker than most in discovering her newborn's hearing loss.

Now, almost 18 years after the fact, she's grateful that her child has been able to go above and beyond expectations -- and is as much an advocate as anyone when it comes to early hearing screenings in babies.

In October 1995, her son, Turner Hitt, was born via Caesarean section with Mondini-Alexander Dysplasia. This resulted in his cochlear not developing properly, in turn leaving him moderately to severely deaf in one ear and severely to profoundly deaf in the other ear.

While undergoing the hearing screenings, Hitt was given an otoacoustic emissions (OAE) test -- which is performed by measuring the sounds given off in the inner ear when the cochlea is stimulated by a sound.

"He didn't pass. They said that is was not unusual for C-section babies to have fluid in the ears and to come back in a month," Smithwick recalled. "He didn't respond to sound; I thought he was deaf.

"We took an airhorn and blew it over his bed. Dust came off the walls, and he didn't wake up."

Another screening typically done to detect hearing loss is auditory brainstem response, a test that involves pasting electrodes on the head and recording brain activity in response to sound. After Hitt failed that test, he was ultimately referred to a doctor who was able to detect the severity of his hearing loss.

Since hearing loss has a tendency to get progressively worse over time, Hitt was fitted for hearing devices when he was 2 months old. With the help of the Auditory-Verbal Center in Atlanta, he was speech appropriate at the age of 2 -- and was able to read by the time he was 4, his mother said.

"They didn't teach him sign language," Smithwick said. "He grew up with sound."

Once it became evident that he had begun to rely on lip reading, his hearing was re-tested -- and he could hardly hear at all, his mother said. At around the age of 5, he received a cochlear implant, was put back into speech therapy and remained there for several years.

"His other ear was implanted in middle school," Smithwick said. "He never adapted to it, so he never wears it -- but he does so well without out."

Hitt, now a rising senior at Lee County High School, is ranked second in his class and is preparing to participate in the summer Georgia Governor's Honors Program -- a privilege reserved for the state's most intellectually gifted and artistically talented high school students.

He has been in every play in his school's drama program for the last two years, most recently Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" as Malfolio. Currently, he and his mother are in Jamaica with a group from their church participating in a mission trip.

He even has a column in the school newspaper, "The Panoptic," dubbed "Deaf Sight."

"He is just a smart kid," Smithwick said. "He is just very well-rounded.

"With being so far advanced, and with the hearing loss, he is not your typical South Georgia boy. He keeps me very busy."

He has been able to adapt to the hearing loss so well enough that many people who do not know him are unable to tell right away, Smithwick said.

"In the 10th grade, none of his teachers knew he couldn't hear for about a week or so," his mother said.

Hitt says that his hearing loss has had its perks and his downsides, and while he feels that it likely has changed his perspective on things, he was unable to say to what degree.

"People ask me what it's like to be deaf, and I ask 'What's it like to hear?' (Being deaf) is all I've ever known," he said.

"...I feel like (the decision regarding early intervention) is up to the parents. Knowing where I've come from, I'd definitely say that it helps. It is a very good thing, but I don't want to speak (for others)."

Over time, he has been able to learn how to better visualize the things around him -- which has come in handy when on stage during a play.

"I can take a lot of visual cues," Hitt said. "I've got to know the script, so I know what I'm listening out for."

All things considered, Hitt said he considers himself a regular person. Like any other rising high school senior, he is at the point where he is trying to make plans for the rest of his life.

While he has not figured everything out on that front yet, he does not anticipate his inability to hear to have any bearing.

"I don't think my plans are any more special because I'm deaf," he said.

Smithwick, who now works as the manager for corporate health at Phoebe East, said that being a nurse was what helped her recognize that there was a problem with her son's hearing -- and is now urging parents to make sure their children are getting the help they need to ensure, that if hearing loss is evident, something is done about it early.

"Once you've waited a year... that's when they learn the most (when it comes to language cues)," she said. "The longer you wait, the more difficult it is for them."

Hope Polk, an audiologist with Phoebe Physical Medicine, says that approximately three out of every 1,000 babies are born with some degree of hearing loss -- with one of those three being born with severe to profound hearing loss.

Just coming out of National Better Hearing and Speech Month, Polk is also emphasizing the importance of ensuring newborns are screened.

"Early hearing screening is very important," she said. "Early screening is what we recommend because it allows for early intervention so they can get (the help they need to function).

"For the most part, 80 percent of language cues are learned by 18 months. By missing out (on intervention early in life), children cannot check on cues as well. (With early intervention), they are shown, years later, to have language skills similar to those with no hearing loss."

If it is needed, it is generally recommended for some sort of intervention to be utilized by the time the child is 6 months old, Polk said.