The Sound of Silence

Sep 142011
Authors: Anna Palmer

Tiptoeing to the edge of the pool, Alexa Garfinkel’s friends urge her to jump in already. Breathing in a deep breath, she tosses aside her ear accessories and dives into the pool.

The silence swallows her up and the once welcoming stillness turns deafening. The sound of children splashing and giggling around her has disappeared. Garfinkel appears to be a typical college student taking a day to relax and catch some rays, except for one thing: She is deaf.

When Garfinkel was born, her parents were unaware that she did not have normal functioning of the sensory hair cells in her cochlea. It wasn’t until she was six months old that the worrying began.

“Someone came to fix a closet door in our house,” Garfinkel said. “A normal baby would probably cry and fuss, but my parents told me I was sound asleep.”

At the age of five, she underwent her first of two ear surgeries to implant a cochlear device in her right ear. It was at this same age that she learned how to enunciate her words, speak in full sentences, and understand the meaning of different words.

Garfinkel attended high school in Denver. “Without even looking at my file, the case worker recommended that I be put into the special education program,” she recalled. “My mom was so angry. She knew I was smarter than that. She has always stood up for me, and I would not be where I am today without her.”

Now a junior at Colorado State University, majoring in mechanical engineering, Garfinkel has proven that she is just as capable, if not more so, than most students her age.

Besides her education, she has been faced with other barriers due to her hearing impairment. Socializing and making friends has been one of her biggest challenges, she said, but her pleasant demeanor, genuine, heartfelt smile and witty humor say otherwise.

“My four best friends are also deaf,” she said. “Because we are confident in ourselves and in our disability, we are able to joke about it.”

She has been involved in the Resources for Disabled Students (RDS) at CSU since her freshman year. Some of the friends she’s made, however, do not have cochlear implants like she does, and have chosen to use sign language to communicate instead.

Garfinkel has also made sure to enjoy the college atmosphere at CSU. “I’m definitely more of a nerd, but I’ve gone to a few parties,” she said. “Sometimes they can get too noisy and it’s hard for me to filter out different sounds. But my number one rule is to always go with someone I trust to watch out for me and take care of me.”

If Garfinkel could tell other people one thing, it would be this: “The only difference between you and me is the hearing impairment. Otherwise, we’re exactly the same. I can accomplish just as much
as you can.”

What is a cochlear implant?

A cochlear implant is a small, complex electronic device that can provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. It consists of an internal portion that is surgically placed under the skin and an external portion that sits behind the ear. It consists of the following parts:

•A microphone, which picks up sound from the environment

•A speech processor, which selects and arranges sounds picked up by the microphone

•A transmitter and receiver/stimulator, which receive signals from the speech processor and convert them into electric impulses

• An electrode array, which is a group of electrodes that collects the impulses from the stimulator and sends them to different regions of the auditory nerve

How does a cochlear implant work?

Cochlear implants bypass damaged portions of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve. Signals generated by the implant are sent by way of the auditory nerve to the brain, which recognizes the signals as sound.

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