I Went to Costa Rica to Watch Two Kids Hear for the First Time

Chris Nieratko and a traveling band of skateboarders went to Costa Rica to meet up with the Let Them Hear Foundation and document two deaf children as they received surgeries that would allow them to hear for the first time.

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16 November 2015, 6:05pm

Watch the documentary about Chris's trip to Costa Rica above.

Long before Friday's attacks in Paris that left 129 innocent people dead and hundreds more injured, I had been struggling to keep a positive outlook on life. As a father of two young children it's my job to convince my kids that there is hope for the future. But with each senseless attack on the nightly news I find it harder and harder to keep my poker face. I'm afraid one more announcement of child rape or mass shooting might break me.

"Why are you so sad, daddy?" my six-year-old asked me when he found me, head in my hands, hiding my tears on the morning of June 18 after reading about the nine people killed in the Charleston church shooting. He instinctively climbed into my lap and wrapped his little arms around me, kissed my cheek, and told me he loved me. "I'm so sorry, Christopher..." was my only response. Thankfully, he didn't ask what I was apologizing for.

Then he spun around and reached to tap the space bar to awaken my laptop. I snapped forward and slammed the screen closed with such force I was worried I cracked the glass. "There's nothing for you on there," I told him.

He was confused.

My son has Asperger's. Doctors don't use that word anymore. Clinically he's on the Autism spectrum but the spectrum is very broad and so, for description's sake, I use the word Asperger's so people instantly know he has mental super powers. He's extremely high functioning with an off-the-charts intellect thanks to a beautiful mind that takes in and processes information in a much faster and analytical way than most people's. I've never gotten to read him a bedtime story because he taught himself to read at age two and has been reading to me at night ever since. His brain craves stimulation, so we allow him to use our iPhones and MacBooks freely. Whereas our younger child would waste away and melt into a vidiot playing mindless games if given the chance, Christopher instead uses his time with technology to Google animals and learn about their natural habitats. Then he researches the fastest route to that habitat from our home, discerns what language they speak there, and teaches himself some basic phrases. Next he'll search for the most popular types of food in that region so he can say something like, "Dad, can we have idli for breakfast?"

"What's that, son?"

"It's what kids eat in India. I want to go to India one day to visit Haresh (his classmate who moved away) and to see all the Bengal tigers."

The internet is great for feeding his lust for knowledge, and I'm proud to say that as his student I am gaining a wealth of information about our planet. That said, I knew the moment I told him "There's nothing for you on there," that I was contradicting everything he has learned to this point. The truth is I fear the day when he googles an animal or planet and finds himself on a news site staring at headlines like, "Twelve Killed in Movie Theater While Watching Batman."

My son sees things in black and white. If you tell him it's raining cats and dogs he will look to the sky in fear of falling house pets. He loves the movies. He loves Batman. He loves traveling. I know that just one of those awful headlines will shatter his world.

To be clear, I do not bubble wrap my children. I speak to them very frankly and honestly, but I also have a very strong case of Peter Pan Syndrome as a result of my life spent skateboarding and want to preserve their innocence for as long as I can. I know I can't shield them forever, but with the exploitation of each tragedy by the media I have found myself wondering, Is there no more good news? Where are all the stories of kittens being rescued from trees? I mean... ARE ALL THE TREES EVERYWHERE JUST FULL OF CATS???

So I present to you today a little bit of good news. A feel-good story of two skateboarders, Krooked pro Mike Anderson and photographer David Broach, who started a small company called Loud Headphones that gives back to hearing impaired children. Since March I've been sitting on this footage of our trip to Costa Rica (which, full disclosure, they paid for), where I witnessed firsthand two young boys receive cochlear implant surgeries, and I can think of no better time to put it out into the world than now.

All photos by Kenny Anderson

You've probably seen the amazing videos on YouTube of people hearing for the first time thanks to the cochlear implant, but for those who don't know a cochlear implant is a small, complex electronic device that can help to provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. The procedure is very effective, improving hearing in 90 percent of children and 80 percent of adults who receive the operation. The implant consists of an external portion that sits behind the ear and a second portion that is surgically placed under the skin. Around 324,200 people globally had received the operation as of 2012, according to the FDA. The total cost of a cochlear implant, including evaluation, surgery, device, and rehabilitation can cost as much as $100,000. Most US insurance companies and Medicare provide benefits that help cover the costs, but for many uninsured Americans and families abroad the procedure remains out of reach. In 2003 Dr. Joseph Roberson, MD, a world leader in ear surgery, created the Let Them Hear Foundation to assist families that could not afford the procedures while also educating doctors abroad on how to perform cochlear surgery. Since its inception in 2003, Dr. Joe and Let Them Hear has trained leading doctors from 17 different countries, including two-thirds of the cochlear implant surgeons in China. It has coached nearly 1,000 clinicians and schoolteachers.

In 2014 Loud Headphones teamed up with the Let Them Hear Foundation and began donating $1 from each pair of headphones sold to aid in paying for more cochlear implant surgeries. This trip to Liberia, Costa Rica with pro skaters Kenny Anderson, Don Nguyen, Julian Davidson, Nick Garcia, Evan Smith, and filmers Cole Matthews and Erik Bragg was the first joint effort between Loud and LTHF. During the trip we witnessed 15-year-old Sebastian and three-year-old Jose David receive the miracle of hearing. It was a life-changing experience for us as well as the boys receiving the operation. Mike, Kenny Anderson, and myself are all fathers, and we could barely see through our tears while filming and photographing the procedure from the operating room. Kenny's twin daughters were born with cleft palates and my son, Christopher, was born with a number of hernias in his belly. Although routine surgeries, those traumatic experiences allowed us to relate to the tension and emotions of the parents as they sat in the waiting room. Still, seeing a tiny three-year-old under sedation and having his brain drilled was hard to watch.

I'm thankful to have had someone as kind and knowledgeable as Dr. Joe walk me through this experience. There were times when I was certain I would faint at the sight of flying skull debris or the sight of the child's brain, but he managed my emotions like a champ. He kept our minds focused on his words rather than the gore on the operating table by telling us tales of previous missions like the time a woman in Peru sold an organ on the black market to fund a trip with her deaf son across the country to the hospital. When they arrived the mother didn't have the money needed for the surgery, but when Dr. Joe found out what happened he asked someone to bring them to the hospital and gave her son an implant anyway. Throughout all my travels and the goodwill missions I've been a part of I've never come across someone as giving and kind as Dr. Joe.


This video represents but the first steps in a new life for Sebastian and Jose David, the very first sounds they're hearing. Over the next year they will have numerous visits to an audiologist to fine tune the sound waves given by the cochlear. I plan to return to Costa Rica in a few years with Mike Anderson to check up on the two, but as Mike says in the video, "the fire has been lit" and those boys' lives are now forever changed.

Two less cats stuck up in a tree.

Donate to Let Them Hear Foundation here or go to Loud Headphones. More skate talk can be found at Chris's website and Twitter.