Born deaf, Ariel Edward Hight was 3 when a pioneering Kansas City physician implanted an electronic device in the boy’s inner ear.
A quarter-century later, Saint Luke’s Midwest Ear Institute founder Charles Luetje recalls “Little Eddie” as a bright, inquisitive child whose treatment helped him hear. But that’s about all the doctor remembers, given that this boy was just one of 700 patients who received cochlear implants from Luetje.
The kid today is on a pioneering path of his own.
A doctoral student at Harvard Medical School, Hight is drawing praise for his research into new technologies that restore hearing through brainstem implants.
What the Lenexa native is exploring — optogenetics, or using optical light stimulation to enhance sound — is beyond the expertise of even Luetje, who retired from the St. Luke’s Health System in 2009.
“I can’t believe it,” Luetje said. “I need to ask him, ‘Eddie, how do you do that?’ ”
Luetje has the chance Saturday when the two reunite at the Midwest Ear Institute annual fundraising gala, where Hight will tell his story.
It’s a story about the myriad ways in which generations and destinies intersect, often without people knowing it.
Hight said this week in a Skype interview: “To be here today where I am, there’s a lot of credit to be given to the people who developed the (cochlear) implant and brought that to children like me.
“Sometimes,” he added, “you don’t have to be with a person for a long time to have a great impact.”
Luetje, 75, accepts no credit for the success of Hight, who last year won the Helen Carr Peake Prize for his work to improve the auditory brainstem implant.
“I wish I could say I followed him growing up, but I didn’t,” Luetje said. “I didn’t go to his school events. I didn’t help him get into college. I didn’t know what college he was getting into.”
Until recently, Luetje was unaware that Hight had embarked on a journey similar to his own.
Luetje in the 1970s left Kansas City for California to study with the inventor of the cochlear implant, the late William F. House. Hight, too, spent a year at House’s ear institute.
Today, more than 300,000 people worldwide have inner-ear implants. But doubt and stern criticism surrounded the early research. Fewer than a dozen neurotologists around the country performed the procedure when Luetje launched the Midwest Ear Institute in 1980.
The devices don’t amplify as hearing aids do. Rather, cochlear implants emit electric impulses that do the work of damaged cells in the spiral cavity of the inner ear. Over time, the transmissions enable deaf people to learn to understand speech.
Hight received the implant just months after the Food and Drug Administration approved its use in children. He has a slight recollection of running around the clinic and wearing a bandage around his head.
Some doctors urged his parents to decline the treatment and accept the boy’s deafness. Many in the deaf community still object to the procedure, though the majority of deaf youngsters today receive implants.
Hight said credit for that goes to physicians such as Luetje who showed courage in the face of scorn. “When you have world-famous scientists saying that the implant won’t work, you’re going up against a pretty formidable opponent,” he said.
The boy never would possess perfect hearing. Long after the procedure, he worked with speech therapists, read lips (as he continues to do) and he still struggles to understand people speaking in a noisy environment.
But his condition never interfered with learning, his mother, Trish Hight, said. Tests in second grade revealed Ariel Edward Hight to be a genius.
“I don’t think he ever thought of himself as having a disability,” his mom said. “He always was so sparkly. ... He’s got a lot of charisma.”
She said he never mentioned his career interests until he was a senior at Olathe Northwest High School. Long drawn to things mechanical, he indicated in a scholarship application a desire to help people with their hearing.
Using technology similar to cochlear implants, Hight’s work at Harvard involves devices that stimulate the brainstem. As for how light figures into the hearing process, Hight said his research aims to fine-tune brain impulses so that people sense crisper sounds.
Less the stomping of elephant feet, he said, and more the tinkling of a piano.
The retired Luetje compared it to adjusting the treble dial on a hi-fi system. But don’t ask him to explain it.
“What Eddie’s doing is way over my head,” Luetje said. “He’s trumped me. And that’s OK.”