'Amazingly privileged': Q&A with an award-winning UI professor


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Pioneering Dr. William F. House made medical history in 1981, when he developed the first cochlear implant for young children.

When it came time to study how effective the implants were on kids, the California physician turned to a young speech-language pathologist named KAREN ILER KIRK. She tested the children before their implants and followed up with them after the procedures, sometimes for years. She documented speech and language outcomes in children with implants and identified factors contributing to the success of the implants.

Today, Kirk heads up the Department of Speech and Hearing Science at the University of Illinois. The 62-year-old Champaign resident was recently honored by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, which presented Kirk with its lifetime achievement accolade — the Honors of the Association Award — in Los Angeles, the same city where she helped make history more than three decades ago.

Staff writer Tim Mitchell sat down with Kirk to talk about her work, her long-distance relationship with husband Gerald and more.

How did you end up in the field of hearing and speech?

I went to the University of California at Santa Barbara. I was a junior majoring in sociology. I happened to take a class in Introduction to Speech and Hearing Science. I thought it was fabulous, so I changed my major and went an extra two quarters.

So I was inspired by a course. And I'm going to be teaching that same class next semester here at the University of Illinois. I hope I can inspire others in the same way I was inspired.

Take us back to 1981, when you became the first speech-language pathologist on a pediatric cochlear implant team in the U.S.

We started with children who were about 3 years old. Most of those children had lost their hearing due to meningitis, which children now get vaccinated against. I wasn't involved with the technology.

I put together a testing program to assess the children's speech and language. The person who hired me and the first person to implant a cochlear device in a child was Dr. House. I wasn't in the operating room to watch the implant, but I saw it by way of a video camera.

I was hired to determine the benefit under ideal conditions. We were implanting children who we thought might be good candidates. We were looking at the safety and efficacy of these devices in children.

How did you end up being part of Dr. House's team?

I was working in a public school for a year as a speech language therapist in Los Angeles. I had a friend who was a Ph.D. student who tested adult cochlear implant users. Dr. House told her he was going to start a pediatric cochlear implant program. He said with children, the implant is just the first step. They have to learn how to use this information. We didn't know how it would affect their education.

He told her he needed a speech-language therapist to help assess these children. And my friend gave Dr. House my name.

What was your role during that historic period?

Our job was to diagnose and treat speech and language disorders. We had standardized assessment materials that were available. I decided which ones we would put in our protocol and administered them to the children.

We would conduct language samples to see how they communicated with a parent. We did it before they got the surgery, and we did it again after they got the surgery. They came back every six months. We would follow them for as long as they would keep coming back, up to 10 years.

Did the children's hearing gradually improve following the implants, or did it happen all at once?

Gradually. First of all, it doesn't give them back normal hearing. Back then, it was an extremely crude device that gave them information about the intensity of how loud and how long the sounds were.

An adult could use this sound to develop lip reading. But a child wouldn't understand what the sound was connected to. It takes time to acquire speech and language. Babies aren't born talking. We followed the children over the years. They were delayed, but they were able to use the sounds. These devices helped children improve their speaking and listening skills.

How does it feel to help a child who previously could not hear to be able to listen?

I feel amazingly privileged to be able to be a part of it and to see it in person. There are other options for deaf children. They can learn American sign language, which is a beautiful, natural language. But these children's parents were hearing, and their parents wanted them to be a part of the hearing world.

To see children who previously couldn't even detect sounds to be able to recognize their names and to be able to understand new things was a very overwhelming experience for me. Many, many children who have been deaf from birth have benefited from the implants.

Do you remember the first child to receive the implant?

Yes. She was a 3-year-old girl. She was born with normal hearing and then got meningitis and lost her hearing. By the time I saw her, she had been deaf for about six months, and she functioned very much like a child who had never heard.

After the implant, it was very exciting. At first, I didn't see a lot of changes. But as time went by, I saw how she was able to reacquire sounds.

Have you ever encountered any of the children you worked with who received the implants many years later after they became adults?

Yes. When I was in Indianapolis, I assessed many children who received the implants. The mother of one of those children became friends with one of our therapists.

Every summer, this therapist has a party in her backyard with music. I went to the party, and there was one of the young men I had used to test when he was in elementary school. He had just graduated from college, and he remembered me. He was there with his girlfriend, and I carried on a conversation with him.

What does your husband do for a living?

Gerald is an anesthesiologist in Indianapolis. I go back and forth between here and Indianapolis. Before coming to the UI, I worked for the University of Iowa and traveled back and forth between Iowa City and Indianapolis. After becoming department head here, I don't have quite as far to travel.

A few last get-to-know-you questions. Have a favorite food?

Fish, especially salmon.

Favorite movie?

I liked "Hoosiers." My kids went to Indiana University.

What kind of car do you drive and what kind of music would be playing in it?

A Mercedes C-300. Usually, I listen to news on the radio, but today I happened to listen to bluegrass music.

Favorite vacation destination?

California. I would go to my hometown, Ventura, and Santa Barbara, and enjoy family and the ocean.


Tim Mitchell is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is tmitchel@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@mitchell6).