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Music to her ears

Maryland musician regains hearing with help from Valencia company

Posted: October 7, 2013 6:15 p.m.
Updated: October 7, 2013 6:15 p.m.

Advanced Bionics Production Development Audiologist Lauren Nadler, left, and cochlear implant recipient Lisa Jordan view technicians in the electrode assembly clean room at Advanced Bionics headquarters in Valencia. Signal photo by Dan Watson

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SANTA CLARITA - Lisa Jordan readies herself as she takes a deep breath.

Her fingers find their familiar positions on the flute and she begins to play.

The movement of her fingers across the instrument are learned, confident; the trilling of the flute sharp, clean.

She’s not backed by an orchestra, but rather by a pane of glass through which one can catch a glimpse of employees working — the people who made it possible for her to hear again.

The music is a beautiful movement, expertly played.

But a little more than a year ago she wouldn’t have been able even to hear the music now carried through the halls of Advanced Bionics in Valencia.

Hearing loss
Jordan, who hails from western Maryland, wasn’t born deaf; quite the opposite, in fact.

She grew up playing and loving music, working as a band director after studying music during her time at West Virginia University.

“As a person who grew up hearing, you really struggle with the loss,” she said. “Especially as a musician.”

But shortly after graduating from college she began to notice something was wrong.

“I started not being able to hear some of the lower instruments,” she said during an interview recently in the Advanced Bionics building in Valencia. “The tuba players could pretty much play whatever they wanted because I wasn’t able to hear it all that well.”

From there it was a quick spiral. Within two years, she was almost completely deaf.

At first she denied what was happening. But then she adapted.

She learned sign language and worked to immerse herself in deaf culture.

“It’s a very wonderful, tight-knit community,” she said. “They actually have their own cultural norms that you have to learn.”

But after some research and quite a bit of thinking, she decided to opt for a more permanent solution: a cochlear implant.

The electronic prosthetic device improves hearing for the deaf or nearly deaf.

Getting a cochlear implant is a two-part process.

First comes the surgery, which wires someone’s ears to receive the implant.

That surgery has been refined to the point that it’s largely an outpatient procedure, with little to no hospital downtime afterward.

That was true for Jordan.

“I went to a football game the next day,” she said, a little sheepishly.

After the surgery, Jordan waited about four weeks for the second part of the procedure, the fitting for an appliance worn on the ear.

“You go in there and you’re nervous because you have all these high hopes and all these expectations,” she said.

And even when the cochlear implant was completed, there was no breakdown, no immediate moment of clarity, no tears of joy.

In fact, she remembers being somewhat disappointed at first.

“Environmental sounds were fine, but speech was another thing altogether,” she said. “At first, everyone sounded like a mix between Mickey Mouse and Darth Vader.”

But she decided to put her implants to the ultimate test — a musical one. She put on a song, one she knew well from her band days.

At first it too was muddled. But slowly, the familiar sounds of the instruments began to come into focus.

“And that’s when the tears came,” she said.

Advanced Bionics
Advanced Bionics has been headquartered in Santa Clarita for much of the last decade and is now in a large facility near where Newhall Ranch Road turns into Highway 126.

The production, assembly and testing for cochlear implants takes place in this building.

Employees decked out in white work suits — complete with coverings over their mouths, hair and shoes — peer down onto the implants, carefully winding wire or testing electrodes.

Most of the work for the implants takes place in “clean rooms” — sterile work environments.

“These are medical devices we’re building, so we need to take special care,” explains company spokeswoman Cheryl Garma. “We even make men cover up their beards.”

Advanced Bionics is the only company that manufactures the devices in the United States, according to Garma. Every device shipped out around the country and around the world passes through the Santa Clarita Valley at some point.

The building is also set up for people or patients, like Jordan, to get a glimpse of what goes into making the implants. The building’s manufacturing and assembly floor is built in a loop with large glass panes offering a look into daily operations at the company.

Jordan was also able to meet some of the workers who made the devices that gave her back her music.
“Thank you,” she told them. “Thank you so much.”
On Twitter @LukeMMoney




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