Deaf YouTube star hears sounds of her future

When Sarah Churman's home movie went viral, it not only captured the hearts of viewers, it also highlighted the effectiveness of new hearing technology. CNET's Kara Tsuboi met with the formerly deaf woman to hear her story and more about the Esteem implant.

Sloan and Sarah Churman tell their story to CNET last week at Envoy Medical's office in San Jose, Calif. Screenshot by CNET

Sarah Churman is the unlikeliest Internet star. The Texas stay-at-home mom of two little girls has somewhat ordinary interests--she loves to read, watch movies, and attend concerts with her husband of almost 10 years, Sloan.

But on September 26 of this year, Churman was catapulted to YouTube fame due to an intimate, home movie that went viral. She was born deaf. But on that day, she heard her own voice for the very first time. The 91-second video clip brought this viewer goosebumps, tears, and an empathy for this remarkable woman.

When I interviewed Sarah and Sloan Churman at medical offices in San Jose, Calif., she explained to me that the deaf community tends to be divided into two categories: those who want to use technology to restore their hearing and those who try to make the most of life without it. She is very firmly rooted in the first camp and has spent a good deal of her adult life researching the latest hearing devices to come onto the market. In May 2011, Churman heard a radio ad for Envoy Medical's Esteem implant. That set the balls in motion for a summer of hope, frustration, high emotion, and ultimately, success.

Esteem implants are FDA-approved and cost $30,000 per ear. Thus far, insurance companies won't cover the device or the surgery since they view it as more of a cosmetic procedure. But Churman and her husband could not be deterred and even considered selling organs on the black market to raise the money for the device. That's when Sloan Churman's mother stepped in and decided to cash out a retirement fund so Sarah could have the procedure done on one ear. In August, surgeons implanted an Esteem hearing device into her skull. Seven weeks later, it was activated and she heard her voice for the first time.

The Esteem hearing device gets implanted behind the patient's ear. Screenshot by CNET

Since the YouTube video went viral and garnered more than eight million views, the Churmans have appeared on the "Today Show," "The Doctors," and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show."

They're happy to be a part of the media circus to bring attention to the success of the Esteem in hopes insurance companies will some day pay for them. It was while Sarah Churman was a guest on "Ellen" that she learned that Envoy Medical is reimbursing her mother-in-law for the first $30,000 and will now cover the cost for her second Esteem device, which she is planning on having implanted this spring.

Despite the recent media attention, Churman is a low-key, sweet, and humble woman who describes her voice as sounding like a "hick's." Unlike a lot of deaf people, her speech is nearly impeccable despite never clearly hearing herself while growing up. It's something she attributes to deaf school and her love for the English language and grammar. Now that she's fully able to engage in life, for her, the simplest of sounds have brought her the most joy: her daughters' squeaky voices, the sound of rain on the roof, and the chirping of birds in her front yard. When she goes to a movie, she no longer has to nudge her husband to catch up on the dialog. At concerts she can truly move her body to a beat. Small things that she never did and never will take for granted.

About the author

Kara Tsuboi has covered technology news for CNET and CBS Interactive for nearly seven years. From cutting edge robotics at NASA to the hottest TVs at CES to Apple events in San Francisco, Kara has reported on it all. In addition to daily news, twice every week her "Tech Minutes" are broadcast to CBS TV stations across the country.

 

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