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Hearing assessed early

July 21, 1998

photo: JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

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newborn hearing testsBy KERRY LYNN FRALEY / Staff Writer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Wrapped in a pale pink blanket, hours-old Legacy Pamela Cain slept soundly as Doris Perry inserted what looked like an old transistor radio earphone into her tiny ears.

She kept sleeping Monday as Perry used the device to shoot sound at her eardrums and checked graphic and numerical measurements of the returning sound on a laptop computer screen.

The hearing loss screening, called an otoacoustic emission test, or OAE, takes less than five minutes and is not at all uncomfortable, said Perry, assistant nurse manager at City Hospital in Martinsburg.

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"All they hear is some little quick sounds. Most babies sleep right through it," she said. "You want them quiet and asleep."

Getting more than a year's jump on a new state requirement for newborn hearing testing in West Virginia hospitals, the hospital started testing all of its newborns on June 29, Perry said. So far, between 60 and 70 babies have been tested, she said.

The few who failed came back for retesting a few weeks later and passed, she said. If a baby fails the retest, given at 2 to 3 weeks old, he or she will be referred to an audiologist for more testing, Perry said.

Though no hearing impairments have been caught yet, that doesn't mean the hospital's roughly $13,000 investment in equipment isn't paying off, she said.

Without testing, hearing problems may go undetected until the child starts school, and that's much too late, she said.

The goal of early testing is to catch hearing loss before it affects the child's ability to learn speech, Perry said.

"Research indicates that many infants whose hearing losses are detected before 6 months of age, and subsequently treated, have the potential to learn speech normally," said City Hospital audiologist Mary Lynn Marquette, who reviews and interprets all the test results.

West Virginia's recently passed law mandates hearing testing in all hospitals in the state by July 1, 1999, Perry said.

After a presentation by Marquette on the testing, Perry said she and Marquette started working together to get the testing equipment long before there was a law on the books.

"We're way ahead of the game," she said.

All of the nurses are being trained to administer the test and give a preliminary pass or fail, Perry said. Only four or five still need training, she said.

There's only a 12- to 36-hour window to test the babies before they leave the hospital, usually about 48 hours after they're born, Perry said.

Babies aren't tested before they're 12 hours old because amniotic fluid could still be blocking their ears and lead to a false failure, she said.

Little Legacy, born 3:39 a.m. Monday, was just barely old enough for her test Monday afternoon, Perry said.

But it was a little too noisy in the hallway to get an accurate reading, so she'd have to be retested, she said.

Mother Olivia Ryan, 19, of Berkeley Springs, W.Va., said she was glad her baby's hearing was being tested before they left the hospital and was anxious for the results.

"A lot of my friends said they couldn't get their babies tested until they were 16, 18 months old. I think it's really good that they're doing it now," Ryan said.

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