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Girl born profoundly deaf to hear 'Happy Birthday' for the first time after pioneering surgery

The surgery means Leia will be able to hear the music from her favourite Disney films. Photo: Family handout.

A four-year-old girl will hear her loved ones sing "Happy Birthday" to her today for the first time in her life, thanks to pioneering hearing surgery by a team of doctors from Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital and Kings College Hospital.

Leia Armitage, who turns four today, was born with a rare form of deafness as she was missing her cochlea, and the auditory nerve in both ears through which sound reaches the brain.

She underwent pioneering surgery to have an auditory brainstem implant (ABI) two years ago and has just returned to St Thomas' Hospital in central London to have her final check up - where doctors confirmed the procedure was a success.

Leia Armitage, who turns four today. Credit: Family handout.

The complexity of her condition means that it has taken time for her brain to adapt to be able to hear sound, and she is just learning to form her own speech.

The electronic hearing device stimulates neurons directly at the brainstem, bypassing the cochlea and auditory nerve entirely. ABIs are normally used for adults who have lost the auditory nerve through severe injury of by removal of a brain tumour - it is only recently that ABIs have been trialed on children.

Professor Dan Jiang, one of three surgeons involved in the operation and head of the Hearing Implant Centre at St Thomas' Hospital, said:

ABIs require complex brain surgery to implant 12 electrodes directly onto the brainstem. The procedure is revolutionary for children with no auditory nerve, it is their only chance of ever accessing sound.

– Dan Jiang, St Thomas' Hospital

Leia is one of the youngest people in the UK to undergo the pioneering surgical technique, and her father Bob said it has transformed all of their lives.

We were devastated when we found out Leia was missing her auditory nerve as well as her cochlea. We thought we had no hope as her deafness was so rare, but thanks to the ABI we've come so far. Leia can now hear us calling her from other rooms and we spend hours watching her dance and sing along to her favourite Disney films. We're so excited to sing Happy Birthday to her, it's going to be a special day for the whole family.

– Bob Armitage
Leia Armitage, with her parents Alison and Bob. Credit: Family handout.

Leia's mother Alison said she wants other parents to know that there are options available for children born with complex deafness, and is incredibly grateful for the level of care her child received.

It's been a long journey, but Leia is a little miracle. We're so grateful for the hard work and determination of everyone involved in her care. We want other parents in the same situation as us to know that there is another option out there for their child's hearing. There is hope.

– Alison Armitage