When classes start today in Wadsworth, the school bell should ring clearer than ever before for Kyle Figuray.
During his summer vacation, the 6-year-old first-grader underwent the final of several surgeries at Akron Children’s Hospital to correct a birth defect in his right ear.
Kyle was born without an ear canal and with an exterior ear that was underdeveloped. As a result, sound waves can’t travel the normal path through his ear canal and ear drum to his cochlea.
So along with undergoing three plastic surgery procedures during the past 1› years to create a right ear that matches his left, Kyle had two operations to get a bone-anchored hearing aid.
The $4,000 device is known as a BAHA for short. The BAHA allows amplified sound waves to bypass Kyle’s missing ear canal and travel via the skull directly to the cochlea, the inner portion of the ear that changes sound waves into nerve messages to send to the brain.
“His hearing is essentially normal as far as his cochlea is concerned,” said Carrie M. Putka, an audiologist in the Ear, Nose and Throat Center at Children’s.
At a recent appointment in the Ear, Nose and Throat Center, Putka attached the removable BAHA processor to an abutment behind Kyle’s ear.
“This is how you’re going to hear,” she told him, showing him the small black box that amplifies sound waves. “Pretty cool, huh?”
Putka then ran a series of computerized hearing tests, prompting Kyle to raise his hand whenever he heard even the slightest sound with his right ear.
“Can you hear me?” his father, Mark, asked quietly while sitting to Kyle’s right.
Kyle nodded and smiled.
“Just think,” his mother, Barbara, said, “when we’re watching TV, you won’t have to turn your head.”
At first, the sounds pouring into the right side of his head for the first time in his young life were overwhelming to Kyle, who fidgeted with the processor.
“Is it too loud?” Putka asked as Kyle nodded. “I can mute it a little bit.”
“You’re not used to it,” his mother added. “You’ve never heard on that side.”
Within a week, however, his father said he seemed to be adjusting well.
Kyle wears the BAHA device throughout the day, except when he’s swimming or going out in the rain, because the electronic components can’t get wet. He also takes it off during some sports, as well as when he sleeps at night.
His parents opted for the bone-anchored hearing aid after his kindergarten teacher noticed he was talking louder than his classmates.
“Now everything is done by the time he goes into first grade,” his father said.
The sweet sounds of success took two surgeries to achieve.
During the first of two outpatient procedures in December, Akron Children’s Hospital ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. Marc Nelson secured two titanium screws into Kyle’s skull behind his ear. Over the next seven months, the bone grew into the screws and locked them in place.
In July, Kyle underwent a second procedure, during which Nelson added an abutment on his skin that is used to attach a removable sound processor to one of the screws, allowing the boy to hear more clearly.
The second screw remains as a backup that could be used if the original post is damaged, Nelson said.
Kyle’s surgical journey at Children’s began in January 2011, when plastic surgeon Dr. Ananth Murthy started the three-stage process of crafting a new ear out of the boy’s own rib and skin grafts.
At the same time, Kyle and his family contributed to ongoing local research that could someday change the way children with similar problems are treated.
Murthy is working with University of Akron G. Stafford Whitby professor of polymer science William Landis on tissue-engineering research to grow human cartilage.
Kyle’s parents agreed to donate his malformed ear tissue for research when it was removed during his first surgery. The tissue is normally discarded as medical waste.
Landis and his team used the donated tissue to conduct experiments to see whether the cells — known as “microtia” cells — can be seeded onto a biodegradable, biocompatible polymer scaffold that provides the framework for a new ear.
Initial results continue to be promising, Landis said.
“The basic research is still continuing, with the prospect that we’ll be funded in a large measure by two companies outside the U.S.,” he said.
So far, Murthy said, tests have involved growing tissue in a lab and over a polymer scaffold in mice.
“If we could get human-grade implants, now we’re taking one step closer to making this into a reality,” he said.
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.