Mark Seibert almost always wears a hat. It slides over the bionic ear on the back of his head.
But in church, his cochlear implant is a magnet for stares. No hat to cover the silver dollar size disc attached to the back right side of his head, he feels the eyes — at least in his mind.
“I know people wonder,” he said. “I just wish people knew what it was.”
Especially since his son Tate now wears one on his first-grader mop of a head.
Hearing loss seems to impact the men in Mark’s family solely. His dad had hearing loss, and his grandfather suffered from it as well. But, oddly, his brothers don’t have any, while Mark does. “It seems like it’s only one person per generation,” he explained.
Growing up, Mark got by with lip-reading and hearing aids. It went well until Christmas Break of his senior year when he went completely deaf.
“It was terrible,” Mark said about being cut off from the sounds of his friends, his family and the world around him.
While he could continue to read lips, there was nothing he could do to hear again except a surgery that involved implanting a device to replace his ear — a cochlear implant.
However, he wanted to graduate with his class and head to college that fall. He couldn’t miss the weeks of school the surgery would require. He decided to hold off until the summer for the surgery and recovery.
Fortunately, it was 2001 and texting over a flip phone was taking off. Remember punching a number multiple times to get the letters you needed.
“That was like 30 cents a text message,” he laughed. “My parents’ phone bill was insane.”
“My friends couldn’t believe how fast I was,” Mark bragged about his speedy thumbs on the old flip phones. “If I couldn’t quite understand what they were saying by lip-reading, they would just get their phone and text me.”
Mark and Becky married in 2013, and their son, Tate, was born the following year.
He entered the world in the midst of a battle. He was jaundiced; the rising bilirubin levels in his little body were poisoning him. Luckily, a Kosair Children’s Hospital doctor was helping at Memorial when he was born. She recognized the issue and immediately had Tate flown to Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville for treatment.
The machine that kept Tate blanketed in light to slow the poison didn’t fit in a helicopter, so he was flown to Louisville in an airplane out of Huntingburg Airport.
In the frantic realization of what could be happening to his son, Mark threw up at the hospital. With Becky being postpartum and with his reaction, neither could go on the plane with their son. Tate’s first flight was all on his own. Brent and Karin Seibert, Mark’s brother and sister-in-law drove them to Louisville.
Tate spent a week in NICU while Mark and Becky stayed at the local Ronald McDonald House.
Heartbreakingly, he also failed his prescreen hearing tests the day he was born.
“I went through a period of grief,” Becky said. “I was like, ‘Why him? It already happened to Mark. Why do we have to go through it again?'”
Tate received his first pair of hearing aids at about three months. Doctors told the Seiberts he should be able to hear well with them. But those early hearing tests aren’t conclusive. In Mark’s words, they are primarily just guesstimates.
Mark and Becky struggled through their young marriage as they balanced helping Tate overcome his developmental disabilities while growing Mark’s demanding business, Celebration Ice. With their friends’ children hitting those developmental milestones seemingly with ease, Mark and Becky desperately watched as Tate struggled to meet any of his own goals.
But they doggedly continued working with him as best they could.
The beauty of it was that even through the struggles, the outbursts, the occupational and speech therapies, and the trouble learning to communicate, Tate was delighted with life.
“He is a sweet, loving kid. He is strong,” Becky said. “No matter what he went through, he was happy.”
He made it through preschool with plenty of help. Then, when he headed to kindergarten at Ireland, the corporation was struggling with Covid-19 mediation requirements. As a result, Tate spent a lot of time at home and doing school through Zoom.
“He struggled,” Mark said. “Zoom was a little difficult for him. But he was doing a lot with us, and we didn’t really notice anything.”
Last year, Tate’s first-grade teacher, Mindy Sendelweck, noticed something. Tate was looking around a lot. He wasn’t paying attention very well and having trouble following directions.
Mark and Becky decided to take him to a specialist in Louisville to find out if something was going on with his hearing. They were shocked to learn that Tate couldn’t hear anything with his right ear, even with his hearing aid. And his left ear was only at about 50 percent.
“We don’t know if it was progressive over time or if it had always been like that,” Mark said.
Regardless, if Tate was in a noisy setting like a first-grade classroom, doctors told them that he was probably only hearing about 25 to 30 percent even using both hearing aids.
In November, Dr. Katie Austin, Tate’s audiologist, recommended they consider a cochlear implant. A cochlear implant bypasses the ear and connects directly to the auditory nerve. While Mark’s surgery nearly 20 years ago was very invasive, techniques and technology have evolved since then.
She told them to go home and think about it, but Mark knew he wanted it for his son. “I said, ‘let’s go.'”
Tate loves swords. Imaginary baddies are vanquished regularly around the Seibert’s home in Ireland. He brandishes the hard foam sword enthusiastically, recklessly, and without finesse, as he alternates between broad swings and blasts of energy.
Legos, trains, Spider-Man, Captain America and Batman also make the list of favorites.
And he loves to swim. As soon as a moderately warm weekend broke the cold spring weather this year, he jumped in without a care.
Becky works as a teacher’s aide at Ireland Elementary. Tate doesn’t like for her to be around him, mothering him. But she sees him in the school or on the playground throughout the day. Sometimes, what she sees breaks her heart. Becky watches as Tate shrinks into himself as he faces the wall of silence separating him from his teachers and friends.
At home, Tate’s personality explodes. His three-year-old little sister, Emmalyn, tries to keep up with him as much as possible; sword fights and all.
That daring, beautiful, kind-hearted chocolate milkshake and hamburger-loving boy is what Mark and Becky want the world to see, always.
“It is hard hearing kids asking questions about Tate’s hearing aids and parents not answering those questions,” Becky said. “I heard, ‘Just don’t look at them,’ many times.”
It hurts hearing those words.
“Your child is going through a lot, and he is still a kid, and he wants friends,” she said. “So, explain that to your children; that not all children are the same and some have disabilities. Just because he wears a pair of hearing aids doesn’t make him any different than anyone else.”
Tate had a lot of questions leading up to the surgery, but he seemed to be taking it in stride. It was harder for Mark and Becky. They knew the surgery might not work, and there could be complications.
But Tate told them everything was going to be okay.
He is an encourager like that, Mark said.
They had scheduled it for the Wednesday before Spring Break, so Tate would have plenty of time to recover.
The surgery was hard on the Seiberts. They were waiting in a room by themselves as messages regularly advised them of the progress. Then, the surgeon walked in and said there was a complication.
They had suspected something was wrong. The operation was estimated to take about two and a half to three hours, and it had been more than four hours. The surgeon, Dr. Jerry Lin, explained Tate had a cerebrospinal fluid leak from his cochlea, and they had to make some surgical repairs to stop it.
At first, it seemed they could take the complication in stride.
“Then he’s telling us that over the next 24 hours, Tate might have spinal fluid pouring out of his nose like a water fountain,” Mark said.
And the doctor gave them his cellphone number to call if it happened.
Dr. Lin told them the procedure to repair the leak involved using some muscle to provide a patch until it healed. Lin also said that if Tate were to have problems, it would likely happen when he was physically active.
The surgery and anesthesia took a toll on Tate; he threw up immediately after waking up. With the long surgery behind them, Becky and Mark wanted to get their son home to rest and heal. They left as soon as he was cleared to go; Tate lying in his mother’s lap as Mark drove home as fast as possible.
The doctor’s warning was weighing on them as well. They kept a close eye on Tate, but by the next afternoon, Becky couldn’t take it anymore.
“I had to know,” Becky said. “I made him go for a walk.”
They went down to the end of the block and back. Nothing happened; Tate was okay.
When they went back in for the follow-up two weeks later, Dr. Lin told them he was surprised they hadn’t called him.
With the surgery behind them, all they could do was wait as Tate healed. He couldn’t do too much, so he and Becky took the time to redecorate his room completely. Over spring break, they slowly took down his beloved train-themed decorations and switched over to Legos.
It also helped take their minds off the upcoming activation. Unfortunately, the implants don’t always work.
On April 11, the family went in to have Tate’s device attached and tested.
After Dr. Austin placed the receiver on the back of his right ear and the transmitter snapped to the magnetized implant, they waited. Tate was quiet as Dr. Austin began testing it, asking him to signal when he heard something.
For Becky, these moments were so hard. Her heart hurt, and her stomach dropped as Tate remained quiet. It was her worst fear. “I thought, ‘Oh no, this did not work,'” she said. “But then he smiled, and I knew everything was okay.”
In a video of the moment, as Dr. Austin asks him questions, Tate stares down at a stuffed koala bear on the table in front of him. Seemingly overwhelmed by the new world of sound, he runs his hand back and forth quickly over the soft fur. He nods his head yes and no to the questions and raises his hand tentatively at times.
“I think he was trying to fight back tears,” she said about his silence.
Mark said he knew it was going to work. “I think he was just waiting for a signal from us, maybe,” he said.
Mark was sitting behind him, out of Tate’s sight. When he asked his son if he was okay, Tate said, “Yeah”.
A new world had opened up for Tate.
When they were leaving, the door chimed as someone came through the entrance to the doctor’s office. “I wish I could have recorded that moment, the happiness on his face when he heard it,” Mark beamed.
Before leaving the building, they went into the restroom, and Tate heard the automatic paper towel dispenser shoot out a length for someone to dry their hands.
Outside, he heard a siren before an ambulance rolled by. Airplanes, cars, tornado sirens, laughter in an adjacent room, music from a nearby radio; all the things that permeate the world of someone with normal hearing began to enter his world.
Since the activation, Tate’s brain adapted to the cochlear implant very well. Every couple of weeks, he is tested to see how things are progressing. They also increase the level of sensitivity on the device.
One evening, Mark returned from a long day at his company and sat down in his favorite old recliner. He kicked up the footrest and creaked back to relax.
“Oh my gosh, dad,” Tate said. “That recliner is so loud. You have to get a new one.”
Tate’s implant sensitivity had just moved up to a new level.
Becky and Emmalyn had been complaining about how noisy daddy’s recliner had been for some time. That was the first time Tate had heard it. A new recliner is on order.
Tate’s language skills are exploding. Before the surgery, his speech was difficult to understand at times, and he had a hard time hearing if he wasn’t looking directly at the person talking.
Within a month, he was speaking more, and his words were becoming more distinct.
The device comes with some added technological benefits as well. For example, it is Bluetooth capable, so teachers can speak directly to Tate in class. He can also connect to electronic devices or, like his dad, stream music into his head.
The Seiberts are also working on a book with Mark’s aunt, Dr. Marylin Leinenbach. She teaches at Indiana State University and has already written a children’s book about down syndrome.
While they found a book for children to learn about deafness and cochlear implants, it seemed to be written for an older audience than Tate’s first-grade class. They want to be able to explain what Tate went through at their level of understanding in a fun and imaginative way. The book should be available by the end of the year.
All of this is to let people know that this silver dollar-sized device on the back of Tate’s head is there to open up all the world offers for someone suffering from hearing loss.
As Tate told his mom in a video after Dr. Austin turned on his cochlear implant, “This is so awesome!”
Becky and Mark are advocates for cochlear implants. If you would like to learn more about them, please contact Mark by email at Mseibert21@gmail.com.