Belle Stubbins and her classmate Delainey Phillips talk before beginning a reading lesson. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Belle Stubbins and her classmate Delainey Phillips talk before beginning a reading lesson. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie)
Belle Stubbins likes hearing her mom cheer her on from the stands at gymnastics meets. She likes hearing her teachers at school. She likes hearing everyday sounds.

Because not too long ago, she could barely hear anything.

Belle, 10, has suffered more than 60 ear infections since she was 5 months old. Coupled with the fact that she was born with an immune deficiency, her body was unable to fight off the persistent infections. This led to a substantial degradation of her hearing; she said it got as low as 25 percent.

Hearing aids weren't getting the job done. They actually prevented air from getting into her ear canals and potentially helping to clean out her infections, which further worsened her condition.

The Hanover native tried sign language, but didn't work at it too much. She said she read lips to understand what people were saying.

Three weeks ago, Belle had a cochlear implant surgically placed behind her ear, and she said she is relieved at how well it's been working.

"I thought it was really cool because I don't know anyone else who has one." she said.

"Now I can hear a lot better."

Her hearing level has improved up to about 80 percent as a result of the surgery. According to the Heuser Hearing Institute in Louisville, which is where Belle went for her treatments, a cochlear implant is a device that sends sounds directly to the auditory nerve. This allows sound to bypass the ear canal and go directly into the brain.

Obtaining a cochlear implant is a lengthy process that begins with multiple interviews, including physical and psychological evaluations to "ensure suitability and motivation to participate in the process," according to the institute's website.

After an applicant is cleared, doctors will perform surgery to install the implant. About four to six weeks following the surgery, doctors will add a microphone and speech processor to the implant.

The microphone picks up sound near it and is sent to a speech processor. This sends electrical signals into the inner ear, which can then be translated into sound.

In February, Belle is scheduled to have her 12th surgery, which would finish up the procedures. Doctors will slowly continue to turn up her device, giving her hearing a chance to adjust to sounds. Some cochlear implants need to be manually adjusted based on how loud or quiet an environment is. But Belle's implant doesn't need any adjustment.

She's still trying to get used to everything, though. Belle had to get a skin graft as a result of the surgery, which can be itchy at times. It's also led to her scratching at it, resulting in some of the stitches falling out.

"It's such a big adjustment to her brain," said Shannon Stubbins, Belle's mom.

Belle must provide maintenance to the implant. She can't get the exterior section wet, so she has to remove it anytime there is a risk of water damage. She also has to leave it sit overnight in a bead solution that soaks up any moisture or dust that has collected.

The road to hearing hasn't been easy for Belle. After her surgery, she had to cover her head, which had been partially shaved for the procedure.

"When I first came back, people did make fun of me," Belle said.

A lot of people would talk to her about it, mostly out of curiosity. They ask a lot of questions about something they've probably not had many experiences with.

"She went through a lot emotionally," her mother said.

But Belle is in good spirits now. She's continuing to live her life, with part of her time being taken up in gymnastics, which she's been doing for eight months.

Her favorite event is the balance beam, which her parents think is an interesting choice considering her inner ear problems. Belle has been determined to continue performing on the balance beam and took third place in balance beam competition at her last gymnastics meet. The meet was three weeks ago, just prior to her surgery.

Belle also has been heavily involved in 4-H for the past three years, where she's a member of the Saluda Kountry Kids. She shows goats, sheep and chickens and even went to the state fair last year.

Shannon Stubbins keeps hoping she can find someone to talk to about her daughter's changes. Unfortunately she and her husband Marcus cannot find anyone who got a cochlear implant after gradually losing their hearing. Everyone they met was either born deaf or mostly deaf.

"It'd be really nice to talk to someone who's been down this road before," she said. The family is trying to raise money so Belle can go on a trip to meet other children who have had similar experiences with cochlear implants.

It's been a long road, but Belle said it has been well worth it so far. Next year she's heading off to Southwestern Junior High School to meet new friends, new experiences and new challenges.

And new sounds.