Hear Ye, Hear Ye
By Joanna Topor MacKenzie
Otolaryngology, Children's Memorial Hospital
As one of the first surgeons to champion cochlear implants for children, Nancy Young knows that providing a child with the ability to hear extends beyond the operating room. A cochlear implant—a small electronic device that can help some deaf people hear—can succeed only if there are social and educational programs in place to help a child develop listening skills and speech. That pairing of operating-room finesse and therapeutic follow-up is what first lured Young to her medical specialty. "I thought microsurgery was very elegant," she says, "and I found the issues surrounding hearing loss very compelling, issues relating to communication and education."
When Young started at Children's Memorial Hospital some 20 years ago, medical experts still wondered about the long-term benefits of implant-ing children with cochlear devices, which were then still relatively new. Young, on the other hand, immediately understood their potential. "I saw them as something that would transform children's lives," she says. "But in order to meet [children's postoperative] needs, a lot of things would need to happen"—beginning, as it turned out, at Children's, where Young began a cochlear implant program in 1991.
Young recalls the early years at the hospital, when she had only an audiologist to assist her. Today she leads a staff of 13, which include audiologists, speech pathologists, educators for the deaf, a nurse, and social workers. "It really is a team," says Young. "We have a whole network thing going on"—a network committed to recognizing the schools that offer the best programs for children with implants.
As technology advances—in part thanks to Young, who sits on the medical advisory boards of two of the largest cochlear implant manufacturers—awareness of the issues involved in "mainstreaming" children with implants still lags. And this is where Young steps in to fight for her patients' needs. Given the demands made on her as a surgeon, a teacher, and an advocate—and her responsibilities as a wife and a mother (of three daughters)—it is no surprise that Young, 51, has little time for extracurricular activities. She does collect vintage sheet music with lyrics written by her great-uncle Joe Young ("I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter"), a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Otherwise, her focus remains concentrated on helping her young patients. "It's hard when you have something you're really passionate about," she says. "It becomes part of you—and you end up knowing a lot of people who feel the same way."
Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp