By Monicia Warner • The Bulletin

Cochlear implants: pricey, not without controversy

When Karina and Jeremy Procknow found out their son Mason was deaf, it was a no-brainer for them to explore and eventually purchase cochlear implants.

“My husband and I didn’t even have to discuss it,” Procknow said. “There’s not a single person in my very, very large family that signs; everybody’s auditory/oral. He would be left out of our family culture.”

According to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, the costs associated with cochlear implant surgery can exceed $40,000. This includes the surgery and postoperative rehabilitation procedures. In the Procknows’ case, their insurance plan paid for 80 percent of Mason’s surgery, and they were able to raise $15,000 through a community fundraiser.

Typically, it depends on the insurance company whether implantation surgery is covered.

Patients must have moderate to profound hearing loss, and there is a specific speech test used to determine that.

“For all practical purposes, when people are considering getting an implant … they basically tell you that it’s not reversible,” said Cory Richards, an audiologist at Central Oregon Audiology & Hearing Aid Clinic. “…It kind of destroys any remaining hearing you have.”

There has been some heated debate between teachers and members of the deaf community over whether cochlear implants actually help hearing-impaired individuals.

Cliff Tepper, 59, leader of the Hearing Loss Association of Central Oregon, said most of the debate centers around costs and results of the surgery, but also the idea that the deaf community doesn’t want to be “fixed.”

Cathy Sanders, HLA Oregon State Association chapter coordinator and board member, provided some insight.

“My understanding is that the deaf embrace their deafness in where they have their own culture and language,” she said. “If one gets an implant, then they will no longer be able to embrace their culture.”

Sanders has had a cochlear implant for a year and said she’s had great results. She’s hearing sentences in quiet environments, and friends have noticed her speech has improved. Tepper’s wife, Linda, has also had some hearing improvement since getting her implant 14 months ago. Both Sanders and Tepper agreed that the decision to get cochlear implant surgery is typically individualized.

“Some people who consider themselves deaf may get an implant to be able to hear environmental sounds; some get an implant to be able to hear their children if they are needing help,” Sanders said. “Some have found that getting an implant has helped them get jobs.”

When you walk into the Bond Street Barber Shop, you can’t help but notice its history plastered all over the walls. Locals have been coming here for years for a cut, a beer and some friendly conversation with the barbers.

There has been a recent addition to the shop’s decor: a 5-gallon blue water bottle with pictures of 8-year-old Bend resident Mason Procknow on the front. According to Jim Wilson, 51, the shop’s owner, it already contains at least $300, and the donations keep coming.

“He’s a very, very cool little kid,” Wilson said. “We kind of shame our customers into giving money if they’re not gonna be at the fundraiser.”

On April 13, the shop will offer haircuts, barbecue and beverages as part of a fundraiser to help Mason’s parents, Karina and Jeremy Procknow, purchase a special system for his cochlear implants to improve his hearing. It is known as an FM system and will allow Mason to continue to play Little League baseball and, ultimately, any sport he chooses.

Originally, the Procknows reached out to friends and family and asked them to donate money or bottles and cans to be recycled. Then one of Jeremy Procknow’s friends was getting a haircut at the barbershop and told a barber about Mason’s story. When Wilson got word of Mason’s situation, he knew the fundraiser would be a good idea.

“This is such a learning experience for all of us. You see the expression on their faces, like no one has ever thought of a (hearing-impaired) kid playing sports,” Wilson said. “It’s heartwarming, and we are so happy to be doing it.”

Mason was born deaf. He had his first cochlear implant surgery when he was 11 months old and his second at 14 months old. He said his first word, “mama,” at 16 months.

He’s been a player with Bend South Little League for three years, and according to his coach, Aaron Boehm, he’s getting good.

“In his first year of actual pitching, he was one of the weakest fielders and batters at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year he was consistently in the top three on the team,” Boehm said.

But every time the wind blows, it sets Mason back. Even though his cochlear implants help him hear in normal settings, it’s a little trickier outdoors. Boehm described the combination of the wind and the crowd noise as similar to someone blowing into a microphone.

“Even with the implants he has, the wind is blowing all the time and the wind is the worst thing for him,” Boehm said.

Karina Procknow and Boehm said that during Mason’s first Little League season, he would often stand in the outfield and look to the crowd or Boehm for direction because he couldn’t hear anything.

Procknow said Boehm has tried his best to give Mason individualized attention.

“He would really take the time to speak to him individually and to kind of gain his trust,” Procknow said. “It’s hard when you’re coaching all these kids and you want to give everybody a fair go and he couldn’t just stop what he was doing to make sure Mason could hear him.”

Mason has an FM system for use at school, but because it’s paid for by the state, he can’t use it outside the classroom.

The system includes a receiver and transmitter; the receiver plugs into the back of the implant and wirelessly relays the voice of the person speaking. It is meant to reduce background noise and will allow Mason to hear Boehm’s instructions on the field. The estimated price for the system is $1,000 to $3,000, and the Procknows are paying for it out of pocket because their insurance won’t cover the costs. They hope it will help Mason get involved in other sports, not just baseball.

“He’s such a great athlete, but he can’t hear what’s going on,” Procknow said.

The fundraiser for Mason will be held at Bond Street Barber Shop on April 13. If the fundraiser is successful, the FM system will be ordered and mapped to work with Mason’s implant. It’ll happen just in time for the start of the Little League season in mid-April.

“For the past couple of years I’ve coached Mason, I’ve seen him turn the corner with self confidence,” Boehm said. “He’s showing up to all the practices; he’s having fun.

“We don’t want it to stop here.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2117,