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That’s not a phone headset

Times Staff Writer

The first time someone snatched the speech processor from behind her son’s ear, Hilda Giron got it back. She had been shopping for groceries and shouted to the cashier to watch 3-year-old Jose while she took off after the young thief and his accomplice.

The boys probably thought they had grabbed a Bluetooth headset, which are in high demand now that California requires drivers to use hands-free cellphones. Luckily, the boys ditched the $6,000 earpiece -- the external part of Jose’s implanted hearing device -- as they fled.

Giron found it in the market parking lot, still intact.

Then a week ago, she and Jose were having lunch at a McDonald’s on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard when two teenagers grabbed the earpiece and ran. This time, the thieves got away.

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“He kept asking, ‘Where is it? Where is it?’ ” Giron said in Spanish, repeating words the processor had helped Jose learn to say.

Advocates for the deaf at first welcomed the Bluetooth craze: Deaf people with cochlear implants, they thought, wouldn’t stand out so much if everyone wore little gadgets behind their ears. But some now fear that Bluetooth headsets will become as popular with thieves as iPods -- and that deaf people will become inadvertent targets.

Jose Franco was 2 when he received his cochlear implant.

The electronic device has interior and exterior parts: an interior receiver and an exterior earpiece and transmitter.

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The tiny receiver, barely thicker than a credit card, is surgically implanted in the skull. The earpiece contains a battery, a microphone and a computer to process and send signals to the receiver via a bottle-cap-size transmitter.

Magnets connect the transmitter to the receiver.

Regular hearing aids help people with limited hearing by amplifying sounds. Cochlear implants convert sounds into electrical signals that directly stimulate the auditory nerve, bypassing the parts of the inner ear that do not function.

The implant does not restore hearing. But with intensive practice, the brain can learn to interpret the impulses, allowing many deaf people to learn to speak and understand words.

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Giron and her husband, Elias Franco, didn’t know anything about cochlear implants when Jose failed the hearing test for newborns that is mandatory in California.

The mother of a daughter 17 years older than Jose, Giron emigrated from Guatemala in 2000. Her hopes for her first U.S.-born child shattered when she learned he was deaf.

“I felt as though heaven and earth just collapsed on each other,” Giron said.

She turned for help to a doctor at California Hospital Medical Center, where Jose was born. She can’t remember the doctor’s name, but said she’ll always remember his kindness.

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“Don’t worry,” she remembered him saying. “You’re going to be in good hands.”

The hospital referred Jose to the House Ear Institute, a nonprofit research and treatment center, for more tests. He was fitted with hearing aids at 6 months and referred to the John Tracy Clinic, a nonprofit education center for parents of children with hearing loss.

For about 95% of such children, there is no family history of deafness, said Barbara Hecht, president of the clinic. And there often is no explanation. It comes, she said, “out of the blue.”

Like most parents on first arrival, Giron and Franco were still in shock.

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“There’s tremendous grieving going on,” Hecht said. “It’s almost like a death in the family, of the dreams you had for your child. Our job is to put the pieces of the dream back together.”

Franco, who met Giron after emigrating from Guatemala in 2003, took months to accept that his first child could not hear.

“I thought it was a big mistake, a misdiagnosis,” he said through a translator. “Probably we men react differently than mothers do. Even after the exams confirmed it, I had this inner voice telling me he was going to hear, to talk.”

In ways Jose’s parents never imagined, he has.

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The clinic, in a leafy enclave near USC, is named after the deaf son of its founder, Louise Tracy, and her husband, actor Spencer Tracy. (John Tracy died last year at age 82.)

Bucking the conventions of the day, Louise Tracy taught John from infancy to interact with the world. The clinic she founded in 1942 began as a support group for mothers who did not want to send their deaf children to state boarding schools.

At her insistence, the clinic does not charge families for its services. Instead, it requires at least one parent to commit to a regimen of individual counseling, family support groups and preschool classes until the child is 6 and ready to enter regular kindergarten.

As much as her family needed the income, Giron gave up a job she loved at a bakery to go to school with Jose.

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“Typically, kids pick up a language incidentally,” she said. “With a deaf child, you have to talk with him over and over. He does hear it. His brain is learning how to memorize it.”

After Jose received the implant, Giron learned to talk to him on his “implant side” and to take off the earpiece when he plays on plastic slides so static electricity won’t erase the programming.

When Franco doesn’t have a construction job -- more often the case now with the housing downturn -- he too attends counseling and classes. Among other things, he is learning to be patient.

“Sometimes when you want your child to make progress and it takes longer than you expect, that’s when you feel down,” he said. “But when they do something you didn’t expect them to do, you feel this overwhelming sensation.”

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Jose can claim accomplishments that might surprise the hearing world. In class one morning last week, he sang, “The ants go marching one by one,” and flung up his arms for “Hurrah! Hurrah!” And like many of his classmates, he speaks in not one language but two: Spanish and English.

The theft of the processor has not halted his progress. Cochlear implants come with a backup earpiece.

Most insurance plans cover the $40,000 to $60,000 cost of the implant, and for low- income children like Jose, California Family Services and Medi-Cal pick up the tab.

But replacing the backup will be up to Giron and Franco. For now, they fasten the remaining earpiece to a strap, clip the strap to Jose’s T-shirt -- and worry.

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“He hates taking it off,” Giron said.

To see how a cochlear implant works, go to www.fda.gov /cdrh/cochlear/index.html.

--

mary.engel@latimes.com

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