For Anna and Will Esler, seeing their 1-year-old daughter Ayla react to sound was a gift almost too precious to describe.

The previous year had been one of tested faith, hope and heartache for Anna and Will Esler as their 13-month-old daughter Ayla sat on her mother's lap last Tuesday at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth. This was the moment, this was the fork in the road of her young life.

It was activation day. What it would determine was if Ayla would be able to hear, or if she would go through life in the silent world of the deaf.

"There was a lot of uncertainty," Will said. "You have these feelings you're scared it's not going to work, but excited because you think it will."

Ayla, Anna and Will's third child, was born on May 9, 2017 at Baptist St. Anthony's Hospital. She came two weeks early, but a healthy robust baby at eight pounds. But it was a day later she failed a newborn screening test for hearing. A little disconcerting, but nothing to get really alarmed about.

 

About a week later, Ayla failed another screening test. Will accepted then there was something wrong. Anna hung on to the hope that perhaps it was still the equipment. A test when she was a month old by an Amarillo audiologist left no doubt -- Ayla's hearing loss was "profound," the worst of the four categories of hearing loss.

"We were devastated," Anna said. "She was going to live in this silent world. I'm thinking that she won't be able to hear her name. She won't be able to hear me say, 'I love you.' She can't hear if I sing to her. It was heartbreaking."

Thoughts flew through the minds of Ayla's parents -- she might not be able ever speak beyond the most rudimentary of sounds. They will need to learn sign language. How much will she ever really learn?

Will, on pastoral staff at First Presbyterian Church, and Anna have a deep faith. It can still be a helpless feeling, observing and holding a daughter who looks oh-so-healthy, but is deaf. Anna tried her own tests, as if enough noise would somehow matter.

One day she walked into Ayla's room. She was awake in her crib, faced away from Anna. Anna called her name, nothing. She got louder, nothing. She frustratingly screamed her name, and no response.

"I was like a foot away from her," she said.

Another time Ayla was asleep in her car seat in the house. Anna went to the kitchen, retrieved a pot and a wooden spoon and loudly banged on it right next to her daughter. Any other baby would wake with a start and cry. For Anna, what she saw is normally beautiful and sweet, but this time it brought her to tears.

With the clanging sound of spoon hitting pot, Ayla remained heartbreakingly sound asleep.

There were a litany of of appointments with Amarillo audiologists, with therapists, conversations with a deaf education teacher. Reality was setting in.

"It caused me to read my Bible differently," Will said, "and to see Jesus interact with a blind man, to interact with the lame. The one thing that kept coming to my mind were the disciples asking Jesus, 'Why was this man born this way? Who sinned, his mother or father?'

"He said, 'Neither. He was born this way for the glory of God.' That's been our prayer in this, 'OK, Lord, use this for your glory.'"

A mother's tears

Amarillo pediatrician Dr. Shari Medford referred the Eslers to Cook Children's Medical Center  in Fort Worth. There were some procedures there that might unlock Ayla's hearing. It likely would be the only thing that could -- cochlear implants.

It's major surgery that implants an electronic device into the cochlea, a spiral cavity in the inner ear containing an organ that produces nerve impulses in response to sound vibrations. A sound processor is worn generally behind the ear.

It contains a microphone, electronics, battery and a coil to transmit a signal to the implant. That implant receives the signal and stimulates the cochlea.

On the Esler's fourth visit to Cook, Dr. Kristen Honsinger performed a four-hour implant surgery on Ayla. Honsinger and others were confident the surgery would stimulate the baby's hearing.

"We were told there's no reason it won't work," Anna said. "But you get a little scared until you do know for sure, you know."

Because scarring needed to heal and the implants needed to adapt, testing would not be for nearly a month. So last Tuesday, June 19, the Eslers returned to Fort Worth for Activation Day. This was it. This was, in essence, the moment of truth.

Through computer software, a series of beeps is transmitted to the implant, beginning with the softest threshold level to "comfortable loudness" level.

Ayla, with pacifier, sat on Anna's lap with a book. Will was crouched next to them with their daughter Lina, 3, in his lap, and son Ender, 6, standing next to them. The family was told to look for signs like a raised eyebrow, a crinkled face, a shrug in the shoulders when a hearing-loss baby hears for the first time.

In video, available online at amarillo.com, Ayala immediately shook her head, smiled, cooed and put her right hand to her ear. It's the gift of sound. As for Anna, the raw emotion of love came pouring out with tears.

"I just lost it," she said. "I just love her so much. A mother's love for her child is fierce. You would do anything for them. Just to hear her respond to sound, it was like, 'OK, it's going to work,' and I just lost it. It was like a dream fulfilled."

The sound, the Eslers were told, was a little tinny and mechanical. That likely will be the way Ayla will hear, but she will hear.

She will continue working with Amarillo speech-language therapist Heather Fuller-Jones, who specializes in speech-language pathology and hearing instruments. Ayla will be taught to listen, to speak, to take all the moving parts of hearing and understanding and blend them together. What may seem instinctive initially will not be.

"It's not like, 'Oh, this fixed everything,'" Anna said. "But this is kind of a miracle device. It's amazing."

The Eslers were prepared for a life with a deaf child, but prayerful for one who did hear. They would accept either way.

A smile, a coo, a right hand to the ear. It can not get any better than that.

Jon Mark Beilue is an AGN Media columnist. He can be reached at jbeilue@amarillo.com or 806-345-3318. Twitter: @jonmarkbeilue..