A family that fled Ukraine last year came to the United States in desperate need of answers — and a miracle. They feared their young daughter, 2-year-old Zlata Kuzmina, was completely deaf.

But all hope wasn’t lost. When they settled in South Carolina, they met a hearing specialist who was able to help, and received an unexpected and precious gift: the gift of sound.

Diana Kuzmina and her husband Olech Kuzmin had dreamed of coming to the United States since their children — Zlata and her 6-year-old brother Filip — were born. But they said their visa application was denied repeatedly. 

The despair of Ukraine’s war with Russia eventually brought them here last year. In February 2022, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began and they were granted refugee status.

The trip from their home in Odessa, Ukraine, to the United States took nearly two months, with stays in Moldova, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany. They left everything behind except what they could carry. 

They came looking not just for a better life, but also for medical care for their daughter. The couple was concerned over their inability to communicate with her.

Zlata Kuzmina, Diana Kuzmina, Olech Kuzmin and Filip Kuzmin.

Sarah Pack/MUSC

The family settled in Boiling Springs, South Carolina. Olech Kuzmin landed a job at a nearby BMW plant, and the family says they were welcomed by the community, who wanted to help. 

“A lot of people prayed for us and God sent us a very good team and a very nice doctor,” said Diana Kuzmina, “and we are very thankful for this.”

The “very nice” doctor was Dr. Teddy McRackan, a surgeon and cochlear implant specialist. It turns out his great grandparents fled persecution in Odessa a century before, although he said that’s not what connected them. 

“I think my personal connection was really more as a parent trying to do the best thing for their child, because I could only imagine if it were my child and, you know, they were in an extremely unfortunate situation,” he said. “In the United States, every child should get screened for hearing loss as part of the routine workup before the child leaves the hospital. That doesn’t exist in the Ukraine.”

He said it wasn’t until Zlata was 6 or 7 months old that her mother realized there were issues related to her hearing. 

“The workup started at that point and then … the war broke out,” he said.

McRackan and his team at the Medical University of South Carolina confirmed the girl was deaf in her left ear, but they saw a glimmer of hope. 

“We saw that she was responding at very, very loud levels to noise in that right ear,” McRacken said.

For nearly two hours in mid-March, McRackan and his team surgically placed a cochlear implant in her ear in a procedure performed at the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital. An internal processor and receiver was inserted under the skin and muscle behind her right ear, and he created a path for an electrode that stimulates the auditory nerve. 

Once activated, the stimulation of the auditory nerve sends signals to the brain, which then interpret them as sound for that ear. 

Zlata Kuzmina 

Sarah Pack/MUSC

But the surgery was no guarantee she would hear sound in her right ear. Still, McRackan said it would “give her the best chance possible when it comes to having a kind of auditory hearing.”

The family waited a month for the incision to heal before the device could be turned on to determine if the procedure was a success.

It was.

When the device was turned on in April, Zlata could hear — an emotional moment for her parents. 

While this doesn’t cure Zlata of being deaf, she is able to hear with the device attached to her head and the implant. 

Her mother hopes she will now be able to understand what her family says, and sings — “and I hope she will sing with us.”