Like any keen music student, nine-year-old Ally Prasitdamrong practises every day.
She parades her tiny violin for a small audience at her Palmerston North home, then sweeps aside a curtain of dark hair to reveal the much smaller and considerably more complicated instrument affixed to her scalp.
A magnet connects a macaroni-shaped wheel of plastic to a chip buried under the skin just above her ear. The implant stimulates slumbering microscopic hairs in her ear and an electrical current makes the sensory hair cells stand on end, sending frequency messages to Ally's brain that translate to sound.
The piano-tinkering, violin-playing girl who dreams of one day joining an orchestra was born profoundly deaf.
Ally had not even begun to crawl before Christine Prasitdamrong realised there was something about her daughter that just didn't add up.
"In a three-month weekly check-up a nurse laid her down on the floor and her head wouldn't lift. That was the first tell-tale sign."
"She had lumbar punctures and all sorts of things. At the end of seven months they said ‘we think this baby is deaf'."
"I was told not to expect her to walk,” Mrs Prasitdamrong recalls. “That was one of the possibilities. Doctors try to prepare you for anything."
Seventeen months and a trip to Christchurch later, baby Ally was the recipient of a brand new pair of cochlear implants.
The Government fund one implant per child and despite the $50,000 price tag, the family made the call to invest in a second.
"So she has got a public ear and a private ear, so to speak."
Today, no-one, let alone Ally herself, really knows whether her cochlear implants give her the full aural menu. But they enable the young girl to share in the soundtrack of the world around her with her fully-hearing brother and sister.
What doctors and her family do know is that Ally can hear well enough to have won first place in the restricted strings class category of the Manawatu Performing Arts Competition, and to achieve her Grade one violin examinations with distinction.
Ally swims, showers and sleeps without the implants.
"There have been occasions when I've been having a go at her sister and she didn't want to be a part of it, so she just switches off completely, and because she has got long hair, sometimes I can't see," Mrs Prasitdamrong says, while Ally giggles at her mother's description.
"Sometimes I put them away at night and my sister gets really annoyed because I can't hear her," Ally says.
Her younger brother clangs a toy and Ally responds, distracted by the sudden noise.
"She has trained over the years to listen and to focus,” Mrs Prasitdamrong says. “There used to be a point and time when she first got the implant, two years of her life when all sound came at her at once and it would have been hard for her. We hear [things] going on but we block the white noise out.
"She can't. It's quite overwhelming. So all these specialist teachers had to work really hard to train her to be a more sophisticated listener."
Ally is not in the least self-conscious about her implants, which she complements with a neat baby-pink headband.
Her friends are just as appreciative of her implants, she says.
Ally's teachers at Carncot School use transmitters that enable them to speak straight to her implants, ensuring she can block out background noise to focus on the lesson at hand.
Mrs Prasitdamrong recalls the time when the family had to choose on Ally's behalf whether the toddling girl should embrace a life of silence and sign language, or be given the chance to hear.
"I'm sure every parent would want the best for their children. But obviously Ally has been given a lot of opportunity,” she says. Listening as her daughter plays her favourite tune, Judas Maccabeus by Handel, Mrs Prasitdamrong has no doubt they made the right choice.
“Ally is also that sort of kid that would live life to the fullest. She wouldn't turn down an opportunity.”
- © Fairfax NZ News