By Harry Keaney
Last Thursday, on a sunny spring afternoon, 7-year-old Matthew Hillick and his parents were strolling down Broadway. At 24th Street, a fire truck roared past, its impatient siren echoing through the mid-Manhattan canyons.
"He jumped and let a roar," Matthew's mother, Roisfn, said. "He ran to me for a hug and a few people came over and asked was he OK."
Although scared, Matthew, it turns out, was more than OK. Like all little boys, he loves fire trucks. But few have to wait until they are 7 to hear the exciting sound of one.
Last Thursday, as he sauntered along the sun-drenched city sidewalk, Matthew Hillick's wait finally came to a screeching halt. And for Roisfn and her husband, William, a long-held dream had, at last, burst into reality.
The Hillicks, who are from Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, had just left nearby New York University Medical Center where, three weeks ago, Dr. Thomas Roland and his staff placed cochlear implants in Matthew's right ear during a four-and-a-half hour operation. Last week, Matthew was back to have the implants -- 24 electrodes inside his head -- switched on and the volume adjusted. It's a computer-assisted process, called mapping, in medical parlance, that will take more than a year to perfect. Matthew's reaction to the sound of the passing fire truck was the first dramatic indication that he has, at last, rediscovered a gift he never remembers having.
Making the occasion all the more emotional for the Hillicks was that, in Ireland, doctors took a year and a half to assess Matthew for the procedure, only to tell them, in the end, that he was too old to have it done. In New York, however, the assessment took only a month and a half. And then, doctors said they could "do it in two weeks time," according to William Hillick.
Meningitis the culprit
Matthew was born June 5, 1992 in the Coombe Hospital in Dublin. He was the Hillicks' second child. When he was about 6 weeks old he contracted meningitis. Saving his life meant giving him a drug that damages the cochlea, a spiral-shaped cavity forming a division of the internal ear, according to his father.
"He was close to death," William said of his son, who was in Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children in Crumlin at the time. "The situation was that the priest was in over the bed."
Matthew survived, but it wasn't until he was 4 that he was able to walk. He had to attend physiotherapy sessions twice a week in Our Lady's Hospital, in Dublin, and, because of his hearing impairment, he attended Stewarts Hospital, a special school in Palmerstown, also in Dublin. Later, when he was 5, he began attending St. Brigid's School, which was nearer to the family's home in Mullingar.
As in all cases when traumatic medical events occur, catering to Matthew's problems created extra demands on the Hillick family. "I was a bus driver with Dublin Bus," William said. "I just had to fix my schedule to be at home to babysit or bring him to appointments." For Roisfn, looking after the growing family became a full-time job. There was Matthew's older sister, Jennifer, now 9, then came James, 5, Alison, 4, and Diane, 2.
Matthew now attends a school in Ballymahon, Co. Longford, a 56-mile round-trip that Matthew travels five days a week.
"About a year and a half ago, we first heard about cochlear implants through a teacher in his school," William said. "One of the children in Matthew's class had it done and it was success. The teacher told us we should consider putting his name down for it."
The Beaumont Hospital, in Dublin, is the only place in Ireland where the procedure is carried out. After a year and a half, according to William, the family was told Matthew was too old to have the implants inserted.
"I was angry, very angry and disgusted," Roisfn said.
"My wife cried," William said. "We were upset about it. We had this hope built up that he would be like the rest of his friends in his class and have the gift of being able to hear."
As for the doctors in the Beaumont saying Matthew was too old, William said, "that was their opinion, but I decided I was not going to take no for an answer. I had been reading about this in the papers and on the internet and I had read that people 20 and 30 years old had got it done."
New York connection
About a year ago, Matthew's aunt, Liz Keogh, who lives in Woodside, Queens, spotted an advertisement in the Daily News for cochlear implants. She instantly thought about her nephew in Mullingar.
"Liz contacted us and told us about the implants," William said. "And she set up an appointment for us at NYU."
"The first thing he [Matthew] had done was an MRI scan," William said. "This had not been done in Ireland, it was the first thing the doctors here asked us about."
After the initial tests, the Hillicks were told that Matthew had some hearing in his left ear but none in his right ear. The practice in such cases is to place the implants in the worst affected ear.
"They called us in to have a meeting," William said of the doctors at NYU Medical Center. "They said, 'We think he is suitable and we can do it in two weeks.' "
While American medical technological expertise is probably the world's best, access to it often means having the money to pay. It was a question the Hillicks had pondered before.
"We discussed money several times," said William, who now works in an electronics store in Dublin. "We said we'd remortgage or sell the house if we had to."
And remortgage the house is what the Hillicks had to do to obtain a _33,000 bank draft to present to NYU Medical Center before the surgery took place. The draft was to cover the cost of the implants and hearing device. The actual surgery to insert the electrodes in Matthew's head, behind his right ear, cost $4,500. The entire cost, including follow-up appointments at NYU Medical Center, will probably total more than $60,000, according to William.
"I know it's expensive," he said, "but we had to do something. If we didn't, we would be regretting it later."
Despite their medical bill, the Hillicks, nevertheless, said they were fortunate. "We were lucky we could remortgage the house," William said. "I am sorry for someone who is in a council or corporation house and can not remortgage it, someone with no collateral."
Now that Matthew has got his implants, his next challenge is to adapt to his new-found ability to hear sounds, a discovery that adds a whole dimension to his world. He must learn to listen -- and to talk. Because he was unable to hear, he has not learned to speak.
"He communicates by sign language and by gestures," his father explained.
For example, to show his friendliness toward an Echo reporter and photographer, he patted their backs. At the conclusion of an interview in the foyer of NYU Medical Center last Friday morning, he cheerfully high-fived photographer Paul Treacy as they headed for the exit.
But Matthew also has his anxious moments. Sometimes, when his hearing device is switched on, he becomes uneasy. "He was startled when he heard the first sounds," his father said.
"When we turn it on in the morning, he cries because he is so surprised he is hearing something," William said. To demonstrate, William switched on the device. Soon, Matthew went to his mother for a reassuring cuddle. But within a minute, he was up and away again, giving the thumbs-up sign.
For about the next year, the Hillicks will have to travel back and forth between Ireland and the U.S. as doctors at NYU Medical Center continue adjusting Matthew's hearing device. Their next appointment is May 1. The journeys are unavoidable because doctors recommend that Matthew be, as much as possible, in his familiar surroundings and hearing the sounds of that environment. Among those sounds, of course, are the voices of his parents, his three sisters and brother.
"The other kids are all excited at home," Roisfn said.
"At the moment, we are probably looking at about 10 trips to and from Ireland to program and tune the device," William said. He added that, so far, the family has not got any concessions in fares. And because the procedure Matthew had done is available in Ireland, the family has been told it is ineligible for a welfare grant to help defray its costs.
"When he will be finished with tuning the implants, he will be referred to the UK to develop his auditory skills to help him develop his speech," his father said.
Despite the challenges ahead, the Hillicks are optimistic.
"You've got to get on with it," William said. "There is an 80 percent success rate with this, we are confident it's all going to be worthwhile at the end of the day.
"He was delayed a year and a half in Ireland, hence he will need extra input."
For now, Matthew himself seems delighted by his new experiences, not least the trips to New York. When he stood up and stretched out his arms, his father explained that "there, that's an airplane he is doing."
Matthew, it seems, is prone to such spontaneous gestures. In what was to be a final picture for the Echo last Friday morning beneath the NYU Medical Center sign, Matthew suddenly flashed the two-fingered victory sign, his own eloquent comment for this story.
Then, with his new hearing device switched on, he was off to experience the sights -- and sounds -- of the Big Apple.
€ A benefit to help the Hillicks defray their medical expenses will take place April 8 at 8 p.m. in The Wall, 54-20, Roosevelt Ave., Queens. For details, call Liz Keogh at (718) 672-7240.