FORT RIPLEY -- Kandee Denny's only Christmas wish this year was for her 3-year-old son, Zachary, to be able to hear once again.
That wish has been granted.
This is not simply a story about a deaf boy who can now hear. It's a story about parents who grieved for their son's loss of hearing and what they perceived as his chance at a "normal" life. It's a story about how the Brainerd community showed overwhelming support for this little boy and his family, raising all the money needed for his operation, an operation Brad and Kandee Denny of Fort Ripley couldn't have been able to afford alone.
And in the end, it's a story about faith, hope and love.
It's Zachary's story.
With an impish grin and a tight grip on the 6-week-old puppy wiggling around in his arms, Zachary Denny is proud to let strangers hold his "babies" -- five 6-week-old schnauzer puppies Brad and Kandee Denny are hoping to sell. The family, including Zachary's 9-year-old sister BreeAnna, is becoming too attached to the pups, so it's time for the tiny bundles of fur to find new homes, said Kandee.
Until then, Zachary is the family's chief puppy wrangler.
Zachary just discovered a couple of weeks ago that dogs make noise. He was shocked when he heard them barking for possibly the first time in his life.
Zachary was diagnosed as having a severe to profound hearing loss last February. The Dennys believe he lost his hearing after he became extremely sick with a virus that gave him ear infections in both ears and a high fever when he was 13 months old.
They were told that Zachary could potentially regain his sense of sound if he received a cochlear ear implant. Unlike a hearing aid which makes sounds louder and clearer, an implant directly stimulates the undamaged nerve fibers in the inner ear. Family and friends, along with the Northern Lakes Sertoma Club in Pequot Lakes, hosted a benefit for Zachary Aug. 12 at the Fort Steak House in Fort Ripley. The benefit raised about $30,000, which covered the Dennys' portion of costs for the surgery. Insurance covered the rest. The operation cost about $93,000. Leftover funds from the benefit will be used to update and replace Zachary's implant equipment and other technology he may need as he grows older.
The Dennys were amazed at not only the amount that was raised, but a few donors gave several thousand dollars each. All to a little boy they had never met.
"When we found out Zachary was deaf, we asked, 'What did we do to deserve this?,'" explained Kandee. "Now when all these people donated all this money for Zachary to have his surgery, we asked, 'Now, what did we do to deserve this?'
"You just can't talk, you can't speak," she said of how she felt about the public's generosity. "There are so many really good people out there."
Zachary underwent the five-hour cochlear ear implant operation Oct. 8 at Fairview University Children's Hospital in Minneapolis. Brad Denny, dressed in hospital garb, carried his son into the operating room and held him as he was administered anesthesia to fall asleep for the operation. It was the worst thing he said he had ever witnessed, watching his little son slump over in his arms.
"It was hard," said Brad. "To see your child have to do that. To hold him and let him down (on the table) and leave him there."
Medical complications arose during and after Zachary's surgery. Doctors discovered that Zachary has a tipped cochlea which meant for a longer and more intricate surgery. Zachary also suffered swelling of his face after the operation, which could have meant a permanent loss of vision in his right eye.
For some time doctors weren't even sure the implant would work because of the buildup of fluid in his cochlea. But the swelling went down, and on Nov. 5 the Dennys returned to Fairview to have Zachary's ear piece turned on for the first time.
Zachary's specialists have been slowly and only slightly turning up the volume on his receiver for the implant. They didn't want Zachary to become scared of sounds and refuse to wear his ear piece. Every two weeks he returns to the hospital to have additional electrodes turned on. The first time the implant was turned on and programmed, Zachary was able to hear the beeps made by the machine.
But as far as hearing his parents, Zachary wasn't able yet. After the second reprogramming in November, Zachary was able to hear some normal sounds.
He was sitting in the family's living room during a storm when loud thunder bellowed outside. Zachary jumped up and ran into the kitchen, screaming and holding his ears. That's when it dawned on his parents that their son heard the thunder and didn't just feel it shake the house. They were overjoyed.
"We knew he had heard it and not just felt it," said Brad.
"He was crying but here we were, excited," said Kandee with a laugh. "He probably thought we were insane."
Since then, Zachary has heard dogs barking, his sister say his name and two weeks ago he answered the phone, babbling into the receiver, mimicking his parents.
Zachary babbles a lot now, said Kandee, much more than he used to. He seems more relaxed too, she said. He attends Early Childhood Special Education classes at Garfield Elementary School and sees a speech pathologist to help him learn to speak. He will continue to learn and use sign language throughout his life. He soon will be fitted with a hearing aid for his left ear to attempt to stimulate the nerve fibers.
By Valentine's Day, Zachary's cochlear implant should be in full working order. Zachary has an 85 percent chance of regaining his sense of hearing in his implanted right ear.
Zachary used to only be able to say, "Mama," "Papa," and "Dada." His family believes those were the words he knew before he became deaf. Now he can say, "Bye-bye," "Ouch," "Hi" and recently learned, "Ho, Ho, Ho." His teachers are helping him learn to use his voice.
For Christmas, Zachary is getting mainly noise-making learning toys this year. For the Dennys, the best present they could have received this Christmas was Zachary being able to hear again.
"It was our hope that he would hear for Christmas and we got that wish," said Kandee with a smile.
Now Kandee is waiting for that day when Zachary says the three words she's been waiting for him to say since he was a baby.
"I love you."
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