- Associated Press - Saturday, January 4, 2020

COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) - No wonder they call her Amazing Grace.

After meningitis made her deaf, doctors confirmed 4-year-old Grace Bradley has regained her hearing with the help of an implant and frequent visits to The Columbus Museum.

“This is exactly why all of us here at the museum work in this field,” said education and engagement director Lucy Kacir. “We want to make a difference in people’s lives. This is an unexpected way that we got to do that, and that just feels amazing.”

As she watched Grace play in the interactive gallery for children, called Transformations, her mother described the gratitude she felt for her daughter’s transformation.

“It’s just an absolute blessing,” Ahkelia Brunson said. “She’s like a joy in my heart when I see her doing everything.”



Grace spent Christmas 2018 in the hospital battling meningitis. The infection left her deaf in both ears because the resulting inflammation destroyed the inner ear, which turns sound into a neural signal the brain interprets as hearing.

After surgery to receive cochlear implants March 15, Grace and her maternal grandmother, Rosaline Anderson, frequently visited the museum during the spring and summer, based on advice from an audiologist. The museum’s background noise is low and the stimulation is high.

THE EMERGENCY

On the first Sunday of Christmas break from preschool at Pinehurst Baptist Church, the then-3-year-old took a long nap. She normally doesn’t like to nap, said Brunson, an account executive at Fox-54.

Grace wouldn’t eat. Then she threw up. Then she started running a fever.

The next day, Brunson took Grace to her pediatrician. They tested her for strep and the flu. Negative. They thought it was a virus. Give it a few days to run its course, they were told.

The next night, Grace was crying. Her neck and head hurt.

The next morning, Brunson called the pediatrician’s office. Grace’s doctor was out of town. The “backup doctor” was available, the receptionist told her, but she advised her to take Grace to the emergency room instead.

“The receptionist really saved Grace’s life,” Brunson said.

They went to the children’s emergency room at Piedmont Columbus Regional’s midtown hospital, where they learned Grace’s condition indeed was an emergency.

Brunson recalled a doctor telling her, “We think Grace has meningitis. We usually give you a lot of paperwork to fill out to consent to a spinal tap, but they’re running down the hall behind me with the equipment to go ahead and do it now. I just need you to give me a yes or no, and we’ll do the paperwork in a few minutes.”

She immediately agreed.

The white fluid from the spinal tap confirmed the meningitis.

SINGING OUT OF SYNC

Grace was admitted and taken to the pediatric intensive care unit.

“Everybody there was absolutely amazing, from the time we got there to the time we left,” Brunson said.

To be released from the hospital, Grace had to be on antibiotics for 10 straight days without a fever. It took 21 days to accomplish that.

Toward the end of Grace’s stay, Brunson noticed she had trouble hearing her, even when she was at her bedside. Brunson also noticed Grace was singing out of sync with her favorite Beyonce and “My Little Pony” videos on YouTube.

So the day after Grace was released from the hospital, Brunson took her to the Columbus Speech & Hearing Center.

“Dr. (Alice) Cellino was amazing,” Brunson said.

At the center, Brunson was told Grace has profound hearing loss on both sides. They were referred to Pediatric Ear, Nose & Throat of Atlanta, where the audiologist, Dr. Kelley Dwyer, and surgeon Dr. Geoffrey Aaron, “were just wonderful,” Brunson said.

Grace needed cochlear implants in both ears. The other option was learning sign language.

“My heart just fell to the floor,” Brunson said. “It’s either this 8-10 hour surgery for my little 3-year-old or never, ever hearing again. … It was scary.”

‘OUR SECOND HOME’

A cochlear implant is an electronic device with two parts: One rests behind the ear; the other is placed under the skin. Together, they allow vibrations to bypass the damaged portion of the ear and directly stimulate the auditory nerve, which the brain recognizes as sound.

Two weeks after the surgery, Grace’s hearing devices were activated.

“She could hear sound, but she couldn’t distinguish what it was saying,” Brunson said.

Then the settings on the devices were increased every two weeks until she could hear normally. And the museum’s environment helped Grace gradually regain her hearing.

Dwyer said the museum gave Grace “access to different listening situations that helped her brain further understand the stimulation from the cochlear implant” and “helped her achieve the ability to listen for what she had lost.”

Anderson retired from Aflac the day Grace was diagnosed with meningitis. That allowed Brunson to continue working at Fox-54 while Anderson took Grace to the museum.

“They have a kids area where they can actually touch the stuff,” Brunson told her mother.

“Grace loved it,” Brunson said. “They started coming three times a week.”

“It was just like our second home,” Anderson said. “They knew us, front desk, security. They were all so kind.”

The stations in Transformations allow children to do activities such as:

- Make art.

-Build stuff.

-Perform plays and puppet shows.

-Read books.

-Explore technology.

“There’s really something for every child,” Kacir said.

Kacir started at The Columbus Museum in February and has worked in the field for five years. Before that, she was a preschool teacher for a decade. She isn’t aware of a similar case of a museum helping someone recover their hearing. But as an educator, she understands the impact.

“The activities in Transformations are fun and enjoyable,” she said. “It’s really great for a young child like Grace and her family to be able to come to over and over again and get those therapeutic medical benefits from being in the space and also the educational stimulation of the fun activities that have learning goals attached to them to keep her happy and wanting to return.”

In May, as they were leaving the museum, Anderson buckled up Grace and asked her, “What is your name?”

Anderson choked up, held back her tears and continued the recollection, “Oh, wow. She said, ‘Grace Bradley,’ And that was - oh, man - I think I cried all the way home.”

ACTING QUICKLY

Brunson said doctors praised the family for getting Grace’s meningitis treated early.

“You could eventually die from it,” Brunson said she was told.

Their alert response also gave Grace a better chance to regain her hearing, Dwyer said.

If the family had not acted quickly,” Dwyer said, “the anatomical changes would have affected her ability to be implanted, and then she would have had no chance of hearing with a cochlear implant.”

By the time Grace started pre-kindergarten at Rigdon Road Elementary School in August, her hearing was fully functioning.

And now Anderson works part-time in the museum as a visitor representative at the front desk.

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