Kennedy Steele, 3, recently received an auditory brainstem implant, allowing her to hear for the first time in her life. When she heard her mother’s voice for the first time, she started dancing.

“It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” her mom, Nickia Steele, said.

Auditory brainstem implants are used to help deaf people born without any auditory nerves. Without these nerves, cochlear implants, which work by stimulating the nerves, do not work. Auditory brainstem implants are currently being used for adult patients, and the FDA recently approved testing them in children at four hospitals.

“Early results are quite encouraging,” said Dr. J. Thomas Roland, Jr., chair of the department of otolaryngology at one of the hospitals currently testing the implants. “We think that these kids are getting auditory information and are on a trajectory to develop oral language acquisition and oral speech.”

It remains to be seen whether patients will be able to use language. “Is that enough information to allow her to understand speech, to produce speech and to develop language?” Roland said.

It’s certainly Nickia Steele’s biggest wish. “My family is looking forward to getting to communicate better with her. That’s been the most important thing,” she said.

Kennedy’s progress will be followed for five years to determine to what extent her speech develops.

Besides writing, R. McKinley loves reading (especially historical fiction and science books), playing piano and flute, being involved in politics and community, working out, enjoying nature, and hanging out with four wonderful cats.