Early hearing tests get panel's support; Screening: Parents say a simple test could have detected hearing impairments in their children as newborns


As Bradley Cook moved well into his second year of life, the only remotely intelligible noise he made can be loosely transcribed as "muh muh muh."

The Carroll County boy's failure with language was the first clue that he was deaf.

But as his mother explained to a rapt state Senate committee yesterday, that clue should have come much sooner. A hospital screening, she said, would have caught the impairment early enough to ward off lifelong speech and learning problems.

"It has been a very frustrating world for him and a very frustrating world for us," Theresa Cook said as Bradley quietly weaved toy trucks between the feet of the hearing room audience. "Had he been tested in the hospital, all this would have been different."

The Senate Finance Committee voted immediately to pass a bill that would require the state's 37 hospitals to test newborns for hearing deficiencies. Eight offer the test routinely now.

Though approval by the full General Assembly remains uncertain, yesterday's vote marked a major victory for a coalition of doctors, parents and educators who have championed the screenings for more than a year. Their conviction, they said, stems from a widely held view that early discovery of deafness allows children to receive therapy and hearing implants that could spell the difference between a normal life and one with severe limitations.

For years, there has been anecdotal evidence that early detection can be a key factor in teaching deaf children crucial language skills. James E. Tucker, superintendent of the Maryland School for the Deaf, had two deaf parents and began learning to adapt to his hearing impairment immediately.

"My deaf friends have always told me I was lucky," Tucker said. Now, the first question he asks entering students is not how well they hear but "When did you first learn you were impaired?"

Partly for that reason, 21 Maryland hospitals have for several years routinely tested newborns with high risk factors, such as a family history, for deafness. Not offering testing to all babies struck many in the medical community as a mistake, especially because hearing loss is considered the most common disability in newborns.

Several doctors testifying yesterday noted that detection typically takes 2 1/2 to three years, after the critical period for language development has passed.

The state's health secretary, Dr. Martin P. Wasserman, told senators that hospitals miss half of the roughly 420 babies born with hearing loss in Maryland each year. Many of those who are not identified, like Bradley Cook, come from families with no prior experience with deafness.

"Bradley had a strong ability to respond to visual cues and vibration," Theresa Cook explained. "It took a long time, and a number of trips to the doctor, before it became clear there was a problem."

Sharon Matthews, a Carroll County mother, made countless trips to the pediatrician before her son Ryan was properly diagnosed.

"The tragic thing behind this is that Ryan lost three years of his life that he could have spent developing language and speech skills," she said.

Last year, efforts began on a bill to require the screenings, but advocates lacked support from such key industries as hospitals and insurers, mainly because it was unclear who would foot the bill.

The new effort, laid out in legislation sponsored by Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, and Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat, has won support from both industries. The tests cost about $30 and, under the legislation, would have to be covered by insurance plans.

Legislative analysts predicted annual state Medicaid costs would be about $400,000. The remaining annual costs, spread among state residents through insurance premiums, would amount to 80 cents per employee.

The tests, which measure a newborn's brain activity in response to sound prompts, are quick and not invasive, doctors said.

The benefits of the brief procedure seem clear to Theresa Cook.

"It would have made a world of difference, I'm sad to say," Cook said.

Pub Date: 2/27/99

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad