Virtually deaf since she was 1 1/2 years old, Heather Whitestone McCallum has been hearing some amazing things this week - the sound of rushing water, of clapping hands, even of hairspray whooshing into the air.
Since specialists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine activated her cochlear implant for the first time Thursday, the 1995 Miss America has found wonder in subtler things, too, such as her newfound ability to recognize the sounds "s" and "sh."
"I heard new sounds for the first time in 28 years," said McCallum, who won the national crown as Miss Alabama but now lives with her husband and two children in Atlanta. "I'm very, very happy at what I've accomplished."
Her ultimate goal, however, might be months or years off. Though she long ago learned to speak, read lips, use sign language and detect certain sounds with a hearing aid, McCallum wants to be able to communicate better and form a closer bond with her two young sons, ages 2 and 13 months. Someday, she'll need to make sure they aren't swearing and that they are listening to wholesome music.
And most important, she wants to know when they are in trouble and calling for help. That need became abundantly clear last November when her older son, John Jr., fell while playing in the back yard.
"He cried, and I was not there to comfort him," said McCallum, who speaks clearly but in a monotone common to the deaf. "That made me want to have a cochlear implant. I wanted the option to hear more."
McCallum was left with only a trace of hearing in one ear by a bout of Haemophilus influenza that struck when she was a young child.
The first Miss America with a disability, she came to Baltimore last month to have the hearing device surgically implanted. With the operation, she joined the approximately 60,000 children and adults worldwide who are living with the implants, which were developed in the 1970s and entered widespread usage in the past decade.
This week, she returned to have the implant activated, a gradual process in which audiologist Jennifer D. Yeagle turned on the computerized device and worked to find volume levels comfortable for McCallum.
Yesterday, in the second of two sessions, McCallum nodded and said "yes" as the audiologist sounded a drum, tambourine and various types of rattles.
"When Jennifer started clapping her hands, the first thing I thought was that I was imagining," McCallum said, remarking that the sounds she has been picking up the past two days come across more crisply than they had with the hearing aid.
Water flowing from a tap, for instance, seemed musical, she said.
The cochlear implant comes in two main pieces. One is a hook-shaped microphone worn over the ear that transforms sound into radio-frequency waves that pass through the skin. Lying just beneath the skin is a disk-shaped receiver that translates the waves into a digital code and transmits it along a wire to the inner ear.
The code - containing the various pitches, rhythms and volumes that make up sound - stimulates the auditory nerve that is the ear's connection to the brain.
Dr. John Niparko, the Hopkins surgeon who implanted the device, said it is impossible to say how long it will take McCallum to learn to interpret the new information.
With luck, she will understand more of what people are saying and find less need to have them repeat themselves. She might also learn to associate environmental sounds such as a slamming door or an approaching car with their source.
Yesterday, Niparko said he was thrilled to hear McCallum report that she heard hairspray for the first time.
"That says to me that her hearing nerve is getting stretched out after a long period of dormancy," he said.
Young children achieve some of the best results because the implants supply them with sound at the very time when they are acquiring language. Adults who receive implants after a short period of deafness do very well, too.
For McCallum, the challenge is greater, but she will be helped by her lip reading and strong motivation to succeed.
McCallum said she doesn't argue with deaf activists who believe that cochlear implants are harmful, damaging the strong sense of community they fought so hard to achieve.
"If people feel peace and solace and feel happy, that's fine," she said. "I choose to hear more for my family.
"I just want to be able to be there for them."