Lively 5-year-old leads spirit life with cochlear implant

Gunner Norton gets through each day with a cochlear implant after being born deaf. Staff photo by Tonya Rodgers

Gunner Norton, in all aspects, is a normal 5-year-old little boy who loves swimming, playing outside, and driving his Gator and John Deere tractor. He enjoys playing with his friends at the Happy Camper Child Development Center in Gilbert, where he attends and where his mother, Savannah Lee, is the assistant director.

Gunner, however, has been totally deaf since he was born. He failed a hearing test at the hospital in St. Thomas, in the U.S Virgin Islands, shortly after his birth and was sent for more testing, but these tests were inconclusive. His family decided to move to South Carolina when Gunner was 10 months old to be close to his mother’s parents. He was sent to the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston, where they did an ABR (Auditory Brainstem Response) hearing test and confirmed that Gunner had permanent hearing loss in both ears.

“This was a difficult time for us, as it was not easy for me to find a job due to having a child with health issues. Thankfully, my family was able to help with transportation to and from MUSC,” said Gunner’s mother.

When Ms. Lee learned that Gunner was deaf, “I wouldn’t say I was scared. I wanted to know what the doctors were going to do to help him.”

Gunner received his first cochlear implant when he was 16 months old and the second one at 2 years old.  The first implant was performed as an outpatient procedure, but he developed a staph infection and had to remain in the hospital for about a week. Gunner has to return to MUSC once every six months to adjust his implants.  According to Gunner’s mom, he has implanted magnets (stimulator) under his skin and an external sound processor that is visible behind Gunner’s ears.  There are two microphones; one is attached to the processor and the other microphone is attached to his ears.

“If he gets any kind of injury to his head, he must immediately go to MUSC to check whether any damage has been done to the internal parts of his implants,” Ms. Lee recalled. “That has happened once when he was playing, and we had to call and take him straight to MUSC. Fortunately, the implants were still intact with no damage.”

At home, Gunner usually removes the external part of his implants, which means he cannot hear anything.

“He gets tired from having the implants because the sounds are a bit delayed and sound robotic, but for the most part this is all normal to him,” his mom said.

Gunner and his family know basic sign language, which is usually how they communicate at home, and he can read lips very well.  Some of the teachers at Happy Camper even started learning sign language and teaching it to the other children so they can use it as a form of communication.

Gunner also has a 13-year-old brother, Keith, who loves his little brother very much.  Keith loves to read to Gunner and works hard “when he is getting paid,” added Ms. Lee. “They have a normal healthy brotherly relationship.”

Having a conversation with Gunner is like having a conversation with any other child his age. He smiles and laughs and gets fidgety when asked a lot of questions. He can easily demonstrate his implants and take the external parts off and show you how they work.

“I can’t hear anything when I take them off, not even a sound,” he says in his timid 5-year-old’s voice.

Still, he loves playing and being active, and he likes to show off his happy grin. And of course, he also likes to show off his “ears.”