by Meg McSherry Breslin, Child’s Voice Board Member
Few surgeons are more committed to the success of children with hearing loss than Dr. Dana Suskind.
As director of the University of Chicago Medicine’s Pediatric Hearing Loss and Cochlear Implant Program, Dana has helped dramatically change the life trajectory of thousands of babies’ lives. The implants not only provide deaf or children with hearing loss the gift of sound, but open up countless opportunities for academic, career, and life achievements once thought out of reach for them.
Child’s Voice is especially proud to have Dana as a member of our Board of Directors for several years. Because of her commitment to research and better understanding of the challenges children with hearing loss face, we’re learning more about how best to support our community.
This spring, Dana is releasing her newest book, Parent Nation, a call to action for building a national movement in support of parents in far more meaningful ways. The book is just the latest in a long line of insights drawn from her work as a cochlear implant surgeon. It underscores the need for a much better range of services for all children, especially those with disabilities, to thrive.
Early in her career, Dana observed troubling differences in outcomes for her young implant patients: some children showed dramatic improvements, others seemed to barely progress. “Some learned to talk, others did not,” she said. “The ability to hear, it turned out, did not always unlock their full capacity to learn and thrive intellectually.”
Dana’s findings led to a breakout book published in 2015, Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, which described how critical early language is in developing the brain to its full potential. Dana highlighted groundbreaking research showing that just as the body needs milk to develop, the growing brain is nourished by a rich, stimulating language environment. Her advice for parents was to talk far more to their babies and toddlers in the early years, bombarding them with stimulating language for healthy brain development.
As Dana pointed out, the early years are much more critical than many of us realize. In the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, more than 85 percent of the brain’s total adult volume is built.
In recent years, Dana has been building a lot more on her initial research, expanding her work as a surgeon while also becoming a renowned social-science researcher. While she still believes strongly in the power of language and parental communication, she’s come to see early progress as a much more complex issue.
In her newest book, Parent Nation, Dana argues that the need for change is widespread, from the lack of quality childcare and healthcare to an economy with low-wage jobs that greatly limit the time families spend with their babies and toddlers.
From her decades of experience with patient families, her career as a social scientist developing programs to support and empower parents, and through countless interviews with families from all walks of life for her book, Dana says parents feel alone, resourceless, and forgotten. Because of this, they lose chances to support their own children’s healthy brain development. The solution, Dana says, is empowering parents to become the nation’s strongest special-interest group.
“It is only when we create a movement to support parents in their journey that we as a society can support the needs of early childhood,” she writes in Parent Nation, which was released on April 26. “If we form a coalition of parents, we can work together for the changes we need.”
The following is a snapshot of a recent conversation Child’s Voice had with Dana.
Q: Why did you decide to become a pediatric otolaryngologist?
A: My father’s a pediatrician and I went into medicine because I wanted to basically help one child at a time, and I was fascinated by the brain; it just seemed to hold so many secrets, everything from what it is to be human, to how to improve the experience of life. Initially, I thought I was going to be a neurosurgeon, but then I very quickly realized how much I loved otolaryngology and specifically working with children with hearing loss, and ultimately with cochlear implants. We think about hearing as the ear, but let’s face it — it’s all really about the brain. So that’s how I ended up becoming a cochlear implant surgeon.
Q: You’ve also talked about your mom’s influence on you as a social worker.
A: Yes, I always say that I’m sort of an amalgamation of a dad who’s a pediatrician and a mom who’s a social worker, because I can’t turn away. When you see differences in outcomes amongst your patients, after the surgery or after the clinic visit, you know there’s so many other things contributing to it. My mom just always really pushed me to try figuring that out, why these differences in outcomes happen, and what I could do about it.
Q: What do you say to parents who just learned their child has a severe hearing loss and are feeling overwhelmed?
A: I have two things. First, I want to say that your child has been born in a golden age for hearing loss. I mean at no moment in time have the opportunities and the potential for a child with hearing loss been greater. All the hopes and dreams that you had for your child, you can still have. Secondly, as I’ve emphasized, you don’t have to go it alone. You should surround yourself with a community like Child’s Voice. There is an incredible hearing loss community that is there to support you.
Q: Specialized early childhood programs like Child’s Voice can be a sizable investment for families and for school districts. Why should school leaders support Child’s Voice as an appropriate early intervention?
A: There are always budget and other constraints to consider, but there’s no better investment than the early years. Period. And the early years for a child with hearing loss getting an intensive listening and spoken language program is a terrific investment in that child’s future.
Q: In your first book, 30 Million Words, you share that close to 90 percent of brain development occurs in the first five years of a child’s life. Why is this especially important to understand for parents of children with hearing loss?
A: The brain during those first three years of life is incredibly malleable, right? It is born with potential, and it’s really the environment and the nurturing interaction that is giving the instruction guide to the brain on how to wire up. The work that Child’s Voice does, the many rich and nurturing listening and spoken language tools, is a critical intervention. If you miss that window, then the brain is interpreting it as language is not important.
Q: What moved you to write 30 million Words?
A: As a surgeon, you often think that by simply giving a child access to sound, you’re opening up the door to countless opportunities. But what I saw over time is that the different supports that came after surgery produced very different outcomes. Early in my career, I started seeing huge disparities. Those who had great supports, like a Child’s Voice learning environment, were learning how to talk on par, and sometimes even better than, children without hearing loss. But then there were some who were barely able to communicate and it was such a painful difference to see. That realization took me on this incredible journey. I knew then that my obligation doesn’t end when the surgery ends. Instead, it ends when your patients do well. With that in mind, I started to try to understand why, which led me down this rabbit hole of understanding just how powerful those first three years of life are, and how powerful parents and caregivers are.
Q: What are some of the biggest takeaways you’ve had from all your research work through the University of Chicago?
A: I’ve spent hundreds of hours talking to parents of children with hearing loss, and parents with typically developing children. I have never met a parent who doesn’t want the best for their kids and will not go to the ends of the earth to achieve it. The differences are the resources and the constraints. It’s everything from paid leave to the gig economy to so many other factors. I think of one dad in my newest book who was incarcerated for the first five years of his son’s life on false murder charges, simply waiting for his day in court. It wasn’t like there was a mistrial; he simply had to wait for his day in court for five years. Finally, he got his day. And in a day and a half, he was released because there was no evidence or DNA.
Q: That leads us to your new book, Parent Nation. What was your goal in writing this book?
A: One of the greatest privileges in writing Parent Nation was talking to families of all different backgrounds and some families that we had worked with at the TMW Center for Early Learning and Public Health. This is the University of Chicago center where I’m a co-director, and we try to provide parents with the right early learning supports for their children. For this book, I wanted to tell these parents’ stories to highlight this huge disconnect that we have in this country between what we know children need and what parents can actually access to best support their children. We’ve worked with amazing families across the South Side of Chicago, and you see how they work to embrace their own power. But you also see all the societal barriers put in front of them – barrier after barrier. In some cases, you can see how society can make it almost impossible for them to follow through on helping their children succeed.
I argue that if we want to have a nation that closes the gap between what we say we want for our children and families and how we actually support them, the science can show us the path forward.
Q: What do you hope parents take away from this book?
A: I want parents to know, number one, that they don’t need to go it alone. As a surgeon, I don’t go and walk into the operating room alone, without an anesthesiologist. I have support in the same way. Yet parents have been conditioned and convinced that somehow they have to go it alone. It doesn’t have to be, nor should it be that way.
For instance, if you have a child born with hearing loss, but you don’t have paid leave and you have to go straight back to work within two weeks, which is 25 percent of the population, that’s not ok. Whenever you can have a community like Child’s Voice – a great early intervention community – then that’s positively impacting your child’s long-term trajectory. So I believe parents need to expect more and push for more so they can have access to that kind of a high-quality program.
Q: You’ve had a difficult journey yourself as a parent, with the loss of your first husband, Dr. Donald Liu, who drowned in 2012 while saving two boys struggling in Lake Michigan. That left you to raise your three young children alone. More recently, you married another University of Chicago professor, John List, and you have eight children combined. Any advice to parents based on your own challenging journey?
A: Yes, I lost my first great husband in a tragic accident. He was a wonderful man who was a pediatric surgeon too. And I was lucky enough to marry a wonderful man, John, just a few years ago. I think parents just need to be okay with asking for help and support because you are doing the most important job. And I honestly believe all parents should expect more from society. When you are advocating at the school system level, you’re not just doing it for yourself and your child. You’re doing it for society. So, expect more and look to other parents as allies. We have strength in coming together. And that’s a part of the message of the book. I hope people will go to parentnation.org, where we’re going to have resources where you can come together and make the community a more family friendly, supportive one because the truth is, none of us can do it alone.