Iraqi girl hears for the first time

Published August 25, 2006

MIAMI - Three-year-old Amina had a room full of sounds to listen to when she heard for the first time Thursday: a circus tune played by a fishing game, several clapping doctors, and her father's gentle Arabic accent. But the sound she seemed most enamored with was her own voice.

"Ah, oh, baba," the little Iraqi girl said, testing her voice moments after her hearing implant was activated for the first time.

Before the surgery was performed at the University of Miami Jackson Memorial Medical Center two weeks ago, Amina, who was born deaf, could only gesture in frustration to get something. She called different objects the same name, baba - the Iraqi word for daddy - because she could not differentiate sounds, her father Mohammed said through an interpreter.

Mohammed did not want his last name used for fear of retribution once he returns home to Baghdad.

But as he watched Amina's big brown eyes react to the sounds around her, Mohammed repeatedly pointed to himself and said, "Baba, baba."

"I'm going to try to say the names of all the relatives," he said.

The rest of Amina's family is back in Iraq, where a U.S. Army colonel first heard of her story through a friend. Eventually, an e-mail reached Col. Warner Anderson, an Army Special Forces doctor.

Anderson, who had been in Iraq in 2003 with the 352nd Civil Affairs Command, and his wife, Ruth Macias de Anderson, a registered nurse, e-mailed Dr. Thomas Balkany, who agreed to do the surgery.

The cochlear implant in Amina's ear turns sound into electrical impulses that activate the hearing nerve, allowing the deaf to hear.

"It's one of those moments in life that are pretty much indescribable, but to see a child open her eyes and hear her dad's voice for the very first time is a wonderful thing," said Balkany, head of the otolaryngology department at the University of Miami.

The surgery was the easy part, Balkany said. Amina will be in therapy for the next month in Miami and for several months in Iraq to learn to connect sounds to voices and objects.

"She has to go through the same process that a newborn would go through, where you associate stimulus with sound and you begin to understand the symbolic nature of it," Balkany said.

For now, Amina seemed happy to play with a new game, which played Take Me Out to the Ballgame as she popped a tiny plastic ball in the air, catching it with a red mitt.

The International Kids Fund, which is still trying to raise money for the $40,000 surgery, usually makes a plea to the doctors. But in this case Dr. Balkany contacted the fund, program director Maria Luisa Chea said.

The organization still needs to raise about $32,000 to cover the surgery, airfare, the family's stay and therapy.

Mohammed, 30, a Baghdad painter, said he can't wait to introduce his daughter to a world of sounds.

Amina, who loves to stay up late and watch Tom and Jerry, "is very inquisitive," he said.