This is an update to a Dimension story WCCO first aired November 18, 1996.
MAHTOMEDI (WCCO) — In high school, fitting in is difficult enough. Many teenagers just want to be like “everyone else” and not to be labeled as “different.” But imagine navigating those years without sound.
Every day, the soft spoken, shy Mahtomedi High School Senior finds her voice in the alto section of Mr. Pontious’ choir class.
“And the home of the brave …,” she sings as the class practices the Star Spangled Banner.
The songs are a measure of Andria’s bravery, when you consider she was once a girl who was never supposed to hear a sound.
WCCO-TV first met Andria on her second birthday, when she understood music and words only through sign language.
“I’ll never forget, hearing the doctor say, ‘she is profoundly deaf. She has no hearing and will probably never speak,’ and I can truly feel it like it was yesterday,” said mother Laure Warner.
That’s when her parents, Laure and Gene Warner, made what was once a controversial decision to change Andria’s future.
WCCO followed back in fall of 1996 when they brought her to the University of Iowa to receive a cochlear implant. At the time, some in the deaf community disapproved. Opponents told the Warner family a child should be old enough to choose the life altering procedure on their own, but Laure and Gene saw the tiny device as opportunity.
A cochlear implant has two parts: first, a microphone worn outside the ear through a magnet picks up sound.
It transmits the signals to a surgically placed receiver inside, converting the signals to electrical impulses down to an electrode implanted in the cochlea of the ear. Finally, the brain registers the sounds.
Andria’s first sounds were her own cries, and finally laughter. An implant doesn’t restore normal hearing, but gave her the means to hear her environment, and understand speech.
The National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders tracks the number of cochlear implants in the US and says, “according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as of December 2010, approximately 219,000 people worldwide have received implants.” In the United States, roughly 42,600 adults and 28,400 children have received them.
The Rochester Mayo Clinic and University of Minnesota Medical Center report that their teams each place cochlear implants in about 100 patients a year, and each hospital has placed approximately 1,000 cochlear implants to date. Patients range from 6 months old all the way to people in their 90s.
Today, many receive implants in both ears, when back in 1996, Andria received the implant in one ear.
As Andria began to navigate her new world with an implant, reality also pierced her silence.
“She asked me, ‘why do I have to wear this?’ And I said, ‘when you were born, your ears were broken,’” said Gene Warner, fighting tears. “That was the beginning of her understanding she was different.”
When Andria received her implant, Gene and Laure didn’t know their youngest daughter Talia, who was just a baby at the time, was also deaf.
Talia received cochlear implants just a year and a half after Andria. She’s now 16 years old.
“I feel like it’s a light switch, kind of. That’s how I explain it,” said Talia, referring to the change when her implant is on or off.
Andria best describes life without her implant as lonely.
“When I turn it back on, it’s kind of like sound, like flowers, I don’t know,” she said.
As teenagers, they also admit they sometimes prefer to turn their listening abilities off.
“On a day off of school Talia will spend probably 80 percent of her day with her implant off and we’ll get frustrated, we will call her and she won’t answer and then we know,” said Laure.
“Sometimes, when I am mad, I’m like, ‘you guys will never understand,’” said Talia.
“Sometimes they don’t understand what we are going through, like at school, stuff like that,” said Andria.
That’s why Andria and Talia’s bond is also their safety net. The girls play high school hockey together, and on the rink, only want to only be recognized for their athletic ability.
‘To be quite honest, I didn’t even know they were hearing impaired, until I was told,” said John Akins, their school guidance counselor and hockey coach. “I think they are a great example. I see them at school quite a bit, walking the halls and they are just like any other kid in school.”
The girls set goals together in study period, walk side by side in the hallways. Andria and Talia say they need their eyes to listen, such as to read lips, especially in crowds. For example, the girls say in the noise of the lunchroom they would struggle to hear someone call their name.
“That is the hardest part, being different or needing that extra help at school. We try to be as normal as possible, fit in, like our friends or whatever,” said Andria.
Despite the constant challenges, both succeed academically, just as their big sister, Natale Mooney, dreamed all those years ago.
“I look at them today and they are truly miracles, and they have accomplished more than some other peers their age. They are true example of perseverance and just what it’s like to overcome a challenge. I mean, we could all learn something from them. And they’ve done it with such grace,” Natale said.
In choir, Mr. Pontious wrote a college recommendation letter for Andria, and in a last second decision, decided not to mention her cochlear implant. Among all her achievements, he says, it seems irrelevant.
“She is amazing. For her to match pitch at the level she matches pitch, it’s a big deal. Every day, I am amazed that she can sit in my choir, with these other groups. We do difficult repertoire here, and she can stand up and do it with everybody else. I think that’s miraculous,” he said.
Andria does stand out after all, not because of her implant, but what else is inside. It’s the quiet determination and resounding courage of a girl who can no longer remember when her world was once silent.