Bonnie Midget

"We're going to live life to the fullest now," Larissa Anderson tells PEOPLE

September 14, 2015 03:00 PM

For most of their lives, the wind blew silently through the trees at the home of Larissa, Bethany and Kaitlin Anderson in Highland, Utah. Birds didn’t sing, dogs didn’t bark and a thunderstorm never came with loud claps or the pelting sound of heavy rain.

Then on August 6, after never knowing the joy of full sound, the three Utah sisters received cochlear implants at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, allowing them for the first time to hear one another’s voices, communicate with friends without reading lips and enjoy their favorite music, unmuffled and vibrant.

“Our lives have changed dramatically for the better,” says Bethany, 15, who along with Larissa, 17, and Kaitlin, 9, was born with a genetic hearing loss called enlarged vestibular aqueduct syndrome, a rare ear disorder that grows progressively worse year by year.

“It was so frustrating not to be able to hear what was going on around me,” Bethany tells PEOPLE. “Even with a hearing aid, I always had to tell people to repeat themselves over and over again.”

The sisters’ journey into silence started with Larissa, who hit her head at age 4, triggering a substantial hearing loss, says the girls’ mother, Julie Anderson, 41, a homemaker.

“Her hearing was suddenly gone,” Julie tells PEOPLE, “and then at the same time, when Bethany was 1, we noticed that she wasn’t developing speech. We had them both tested and were shocked to learn they’d been born with this genetic syndrome.”

Both girls had been outfitted with hearing aids by the time Kaitlin was born and diagnosed with the same ailment. Although hearing aids helped the girls to understand their teachers in class, all three continued to suffer escalating hearing loss.

“It started going downhill for all of them, and it got to the point where they couldn’t even hear with the hearing aids,” their father, Carl, 41, an information security consultant, tells PEOPLE. “We knew that something drastic had to be done.”

After a trip to Washington D.C., in 2014, Larissa lost what little hearing she had in her right ear after a change in cabin pressure. The Andersons then looked into giving their daughters cochlear implants – small, surgically-implanted electronic devices that help deaf or severely hard-of-hearing people to pick up sounds they would otherwise miss.

After finally getting the green light from their insurance company, the girls underwent two-and-a-half hour surgeries, one after another, on the same day.

Bethany, front, and Kaitlin after their surgery. Their father, Carl, is shown in the background.
Julie Anderson

“Doing cochlear implant surgeries on three siblings on the same day is extremely rare, but they all met the candidacy criteria at the same time,” says the girls’ surgeon, Dr. Richard Gurgel of the University of Utah School of Medicine.

“There is so much more to hearing than just hearing,” Gurgel tells PEOPLE. “It affects our ability to communicate and connect, our emotional state and even our cognitive functions. The implants will have a major impact on helping these sisters reach their full potential.”

Julie holding her daughter, Kaitlin, before surgery.
Carl Anderson

Two weeks after their surgeries, Larissa and her sisters went to an audiologist’s office to have the devices turned on, allowing them to communicate verbally for the first time.

Although it will take time for the girls’ brains to adjust to the implants’ “robotic” signals, “this is going to make such a huge difference,” says Larissa, who documented her journey on YouTube. Most people take their hearing for granted, but we never will.” The sound of silence, she says, “will never be missed. There won’t be any more lip-reading or having to read the subtitles on television. We’re going to live life to the fullest now.”

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