Iraqi Boy Hopes Bay Area Holds Key to Hearing

More than a year-and-a-half ago, a bomb took Mustafa Ghazwan's hearing. On Tuesday, the 3-year-old Iraqi boy could finally get it back.
Audiologists at the University of California, San Francisco on Tuesday are set to switch on an electronic device surgically inserted into Mustafa's ear weeks earlier to restore his hearing.

If the cochlear implant works, the wall of silence surrounding Mustafa will crack for the first time since a U.S. airstrike left him deaf in June 2007.

Mustafa was injured when a U.S. jet fired a missile into a house next to his family's home, according to the group No More Victims, which paid for his trip to San Francisco.

Two years old at the time of the attack, Mustafa had just started learning to speak. He has not been able to talk since. Mustafa's father, Ghazwan al-Nadawi, said his son often bangs his head in frustration over his inability to communicate.

The implant in Mustafa's right ear could alleviate that frustration by channeling sound past his damaged ears directly into his brain. The device works by turning sounds into electrical impulses that are fired into nerves inside the ear.

Over time, the area of the brain that manages hearing learns to translate those impulses into "sounds." While the experience is not the same as normal hearing, deaf patients can again understand speech, use the telephone and listen to music, according to doctors.

In late January, UCSF audiologist Colleen Polite switched on the implant briefly at a low frequency to test the device. Mustafa's auditory nerves responded to the signal, though it was too early to say whether he heard any sound, Polite said.

Still, she was optimistic, especially since the brain of a child as young as Mustafa can adapt quickly. "The younger that we can implant, the more malleable the brain to the input," she said.

Mustafa and his father, a professor of media studies at Baghdad University, expect to stay in San Francisco for several more months as the boy adjusts to the device. He will undergo intensive hearing and speech therapy after missing a crucial period of childhood development when children typically begin to talk.

Doctors and medical staff are donating their services to defer the estimated $85,000 cost of Mustafa's treatment. The cochlear implant's manufacturer donated the device, and charitable donations have covered the costs of his trip.

The explosion that took Mustafa's hearing ripped through a neighbor's home in Baquba northeast of Baghdad during the run-up to a major U.S. offensive against insurgents in the city.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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