Implant broadens former football player's goals

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — The ice rink grew quiet after the final buzzer sounded, much like it had been the entire game for Travis Koenke.

He leaned back on the net, lifted his hockey mask and dropped his head in disappointment. One-by-one his teammates skated up and gave their 22-year-old goalie reassuring hugs and high fives.

No words were exchanged.

It was a frustrating late-game loss for the Nexus team in the Sunday night adult hockey league at Daytona Ice Arena, yet in another way a win in the life of Koenke, who was born deaf.

"I know it's only a game. I've got to remember that," acknowledged Robin Koenke, a bit hoarse after shouting for her son's team from the stands high above the ice. "We're so proud of Travis. He's come a long way."

For this family, victories are measured in much more meaningful ways than final hockey scores.

The biggest occurred on July 9, 2004, when, at age 15, the then Mainland High School student received a cochlear implant at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida -- paid for by a local Rotary Club.

From that day forward, the small electronic device changed Koenke's world, ending a lifetime of silence.

"It's been a real blessing," said Warren Koenke, reflecting on his son's life. "It's opened up a lot of doors."

With the help of Mark Lawson, Koenke landed a job a little more than a year ago at the Halifax Humane Society, where he feeds and cares for newly found stray dogs. Lawson, 50, the former employment-services manager of United Cerebral Palsy of East Central Florida, said Koenke quickly advanced from volunteer to full-time employee.

"His IQ is in the 130s. He's real smart," Lawson said. "And he's such a good kid, with such a great personality."

On his off time, Lawson introduced Koenke to ice hockey, and the teammates on his top-division adult-league team. They all took to Koenke's engaging manner and easy smile, as he watched their games from the bench.

But after saving enough money, Koenke decided his spectator days were over. Last winter, he took up the sport with religious fervor and soon joined a lower-division adult-league team, to the surprise of his mother.

"He didn't even know how to skate, and he went out and bought $2,000 of equipment," Robin Koenke recalled with a grin. "But this place (the rink) has been great. Everyone's been so accepting. It's allowed Travis to be Travis."

But while in goal, Koenke chooses to remove the implant to avoid possible damage. During games, Koenke cannot hear a referee's whistle or the sound of a stick hitting a puck.

Everything is visual. He is deaf.

"He plays real well," Lawson said. "But he's tough on himself. He thinks he should stop every puck."

Working at the animal shelter appeals to Koenke's sensitive side. Hockey appeals to his more aggressive side.

"I like to play hockey because it's tough, just like football," he said, recalling his days on Mainland's varsity football team.

But more importantly, hockey provides a social network, a safe bridge into the hearing world.

"Now, he has all these new friends, and they're teaching him life, because hockey is life," Robin Koenke said of her only child. "He's so happy."

Koenke is one of about 43,000 adults and 29,000 children in the United States who have received cochlear implants over the years.

The Rotary Club Daytona Beach West in 2004 saw the untapped potential one might provide Koenke. Medical, speech and psychological evaluations at Shands showed he was an excellent candidate.

But the procedure usually is prescribed for younger deaf children, or people who lost hearing later in life.

Koenke had no frame of reference on how a bird, car horn or human voice sounded. But the final decision rested with him, and his answer was: "Sure, put it in."

The device was turned on a month after the four-hour surgery. The first words Koenke ever heard were from his father, an emotional: "Hello son, I love you."

After 15 years, the teenager broke his lifelong silence with: "Dad and Mom."

It was something his father described as overwhelming: "I always had dreams of us talking."

Koenke went on to receive several years of tutoring and speech therapy and graduated in 2008 from Mainland with honors and a full diploma, not a "certificate of completion," his mother said. He attended Daytona State College for about two years.

"But it didn't work out," Koenke said.

At the animal shelter, Koenke looks comfortable. Communication is much simpler, often expressed with a mere caress or calming word to the abandoned pets.

"I love cats, dogs and any kind of animals. I have three dogs," he said, all Labrador retrievers -- one of whom Koenke adopted from the shelter. "She was lost. Nobody picked her because of her age (8). But she is still smart and super sweet, too. I'd hate to see her put down. So, I picked her up."

One of his career goals is to one day work for a veterinarian or an animal-control department.

"I am not quite sure yet," he said.

Koenke received a more technologically sophisticated implant that blocks out background noise more efficiently, making it easier to focus on everyday conversation. He also reads lips.

Koenke's speech remains a challenge for strangers to understand, but not his parents. Given verbal language came so late in his life, Koenke's still trying to adapt to the complexities and idiosyncrasies of English.

"Yesterday, he asked me what a rain check is," Warren Koenke recalled with a grin. "He's always learning."

At home in Port Orange, Koenke routinely responds to his parents from throughout the house. No longer does someone have to speak directly to his face.

"The implant has been absolutely a success, just fantastic," the elder Koenke said. "I wish every deaf kid could receive what Travis did. It changed his life."

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