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ST. AUGUSTA, MINN. - Abigail Voigt was born to talk.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the 11-year-old was chattering about how gymnastics is her favorite sport, grumbling about not being able to go on a promised trip to the Bahamas (more to come on that), and explaining how a cochlear implant device connects to her head.

But for the first three years of her life, Abigail wasn't able to communicate vocally.

"Before she really had words, she would be very theatrical. She would try so hard to tell me what she was thinking and it would frustrate her," said Stacy Voigt, Abigail's mom.

Abigail was born five weeks early and failed the newborn hearing test, which isn't uncommon for premature infants. But she continued to fail hearing tests and was soon diagnosed with severe to profound hearing loss — a surprise to parents Stacy and Jeremy because they had no family history of congenital hearing loss.

"As a new parent, it was pretty nerve-wracking and terrifying," Jeremy said. "You don't know what the future holds."

The St. Augusta parents, now 37, learned they both have a recessive gene called "connexin-26″ that can cause hearing loss. Because of that, there was a 25% chance their child would be born with hearing impairment. And it happened twice: the Voigt's second daughter, Zoey, now 10, was also born with profound hearing loss.

Zoey Voigt, 10, shows one of her cochlear implants while sitting next to her sister, Abigail, in their driveway Wednesday in St. Augusta.
Zoey Voigt, 10, shows one of her cochlear implants while sitting next to her sister, Abigail, in their driveway Wednesday in St. Augusta.


Like her older sister, Zoey can be a chatterbox but is a bit more shy, both with classmates and a reporter visiting on a recent weekday afternoon. She instead was more interested in playing outside with the neighbors.

After the girls were diagnosed with hearing loss, the Voigts spent several thousand dollars on hearing aids while battling the insurance company to cover cochlear implants, which are devices that transform sound into electrical signals in the brain. A magnet is implanted under the skin behind the ear, which then connects to a device that picks up sound and converts it into signals that get sent to the auditory nerve.

"You kind of have to prove to the insurance that they truly are deaf and can't hear anything," Stacy said. "As a baby, that's very difficult. It's difficult for the parent. It's difficult for the audiologist. So that takes time."

But time wasn't on their side. Abigail was so far behind in language development, the audiologist said she might not ever catch up.

"At 2-1/2 years of age, she had maybe 20 words, if that," Stacy said. "That's a huge concern."

After Stacy changed jobs and got new insurance, the girls finally qualified for implants. They had their surgeries on the same day in May 2015 — their "hearing birthday," as the Voigts call it. A few weeks later, the audiologist turned on the devices for the first time and tried to get their attention by saying "Bop bop bop bop."

"They both just turned — and it was such a quick turn," Stacy said. "They had never done that before."

The surgeries were just the first step of their journey. The girls attended a special school in Roseville for children with hearing loss and attended speech therapy twice a week for seven years. They also were eventually fitted for cochlear implants in their other ears.

And this year, the girls are finally catching up to their peers in terms of language and communication. Abigail, in fifth grade at Annandale Elementary School, is proud to say she's reading at a sixth-grade level.

Zoey Voigt, left, 10, and sister Abigail, 11, look to the neighbor kids across the street Wednesday in St. Augusta.
Zoey Voigt, left, 10, and sister Abigail, 11, look to the neighbor kids across the street Wednesday in St. Augusta.


The girls recently eclipsed another goal: They used their experiences with cochlear implants to dream up improvements to the device, beating out more than 250 children from across the globe in a contest organized by implant company Med-El.

The girls learned they were winners in late February when a representative from the company visited their classrooms to surprise them — as well as their classmates, some of whom didn't even know they have cochlear implants.

The prize is a trip to the company's headquarters in Austria this June. In need of passports but not wanting to spoil the surprise, their parents said they were going to the Bahamas (hence Abigail's disappointment, though Stacy promised that trip will come.)

The girls' contest submission outlined three improvements to their cochlear implants: setting an alarm with an app on a smartwatch that would "ring" using the processing device; playing music through the processors via Bluetooth; and seeing the processor's battery life in real time.

Abigail said the device's short battery life — about 18 hours — makes her anxious because if she's somewhere without extra batteries and the device runs out of juice, her world goes quiet.

Since the announcement, both Abigail and Zoey have shown a newfound confidence, their parents say.

"This contest has opened them up to feeling like, 'I might be a little different but I'm pretty cool, too,'" Jeremy said. "It's opened up their eyes and proves all the work they've put in their whole life — all the speech therapy and appointments — is worth it. This is the light at the end of the tunnel."