SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A U.S. missile strike in Iraq took Mustafa Ghazwan’s hearing nearly two years ago. On Tuesday, far from home, the 3-year-old’s wall of silence finally cracked.
In a University of California, San Francisco conference room, audiologist Colleen Polite switched on an electronic device that had been surgically inserted into Mustafa’s ear weeks ago.
After several tense minutes with no response, Mustafa stopped playing with his puzzle and buried his head in his father’s chest at the sound of Polite’s voice. Moments later, the sound of a clacking toy drew a stare and a frown from the otherwise cheery boy.
“I think he’s off to a fantastic start,” Polite said. “It was almost as if he read a script before he came in today.”
Mustafa was 2 years old and just learning to speak when a missile struck a neighbor’s home and left him deaf in June 2007.
He has not been able to talk since. His father, Ghazwan Al-Nadawi, said his son sometimes bangs his head in frustration over his inability to communicate.
No More Victims, a group that brings war-wounded Iraqi children to the U.S. for treatment, sponsored Mustafa’s trip to San Francisco in December. The next month, UCSF surgeons donating their services inserted a cochlear implant in his right ear.
The implant channels sound past damaged ears and directly into the brain. The device turns sounds transmitted through an external microphone mounted on the ear into electrical impulses that are fired into auditory nerves.
Over time, the area of the brain that manages hearing learns to translate those impulses. While the experience is not the same as normal hearing, patients can understand speech, use the telephone and listen to music, according to doctors.
Mustafa’s device even includes a jack that will allow him to directly connect his implant to an iPod.
Mustafa will need several months of observation to determine what sounds he is and is not hearing so the device can be fine-tuned, Polite said. He and his father, a professor of media studies at Baghdad University, expect to stay in San Francisco as the boy adjusts to the device.
The boy also will undergo intensive hearing and speech therapy at a San Francisco school to begin training his brain to adapt to the new signals.
“The younger that we can implant, the more malleable the brain to the input,” Polite said.
The explosion that took Mustafa’s hearing ripped through a neighbor’s home in Baqouba, northeast of Baghdad, during the run-up to a major U.S. offensive against insurgents in the city.
Through a translator, Al-Nadawi said he hopes his son will soon be able to hear him and his mother speak. But there are other sounds he hopes Mustafa never hears again.
“Now that he can hear, will he hear more bombing and more bullets over his head?” Al-Nadawi said. “This is an unknown future for him.”