BEFORE WE depart for the Christmas weekend, let's check in on three people whose health-related stories sparked huge reader interest this year.

We'll begin with Kristen D'Antonio, who is, sadly, beginning to experience changes in her hearing, her ears distorting sounds she used to easily recognize.

"They were talking about the 'state budget' on the news, and I thought they said 'stink bugs,' " laughs Kristen, 20, ever upbeat despite having Neurofibromatosis Type 2 - a genetic disorder that threatens her voice and will probably rob her of her hearing before she's 30.

I wrote in July how Kristen, who was diagnosed at 17, has a "deaf bucket list" of the eclectic musical performances she wants to hear, in concert, before the silence descends.

Readers opened their hearts to this wonderfully spirited young woman, showering her with money and tickets to hear everyone from Carlos Santana, Steve Winwood, Tom Petty and Aerosmith to Styx, Justin Bieber, Arlo Guthrie and Barenaked Ladies.

Kristen has been receiving chemo to shrink a large neck tumor, but the treatment has changed her voice. She will undergo a procedure next month that should help clear the huskiness that has made her sound like a two-pack-a-day smoker.

Meantime, Kristen, a speech major at Montgomery County Community College, has begun studying sign language and lip-reading so that, no matter her medical outcome, "My voice will be heard."

Reaction to Matt Britt knocked my socks off.

For weeks after his story appeared, checks poured in for Matt, 43, the father of three daughters who, in the space of a few years, had lost two wives to cancer and his mom to suicide.

He was nearly bankrupt from medical costs. The economy was battering his construction business. And he and the girls faced the loss of their home.

When I interviewed Matt in October, he was worried sick about how the losses were impacting his children (including his oldest, a Temple freshman, who faced the possibility of dropping out of school, for financial reasons).

"How much can kids take?" he asked, his head in his hands.

Thanks to nearly $15,000 from Daily News readers, and thousands more generated by a community fundraiser, the wolves have inched away from the door of Matt's Huntingdon Valley home. (The house is on the market; Matt hopes to move to a smaller, more affordable place now that his family is living on his income alone.)

His daughter has been able to remain at Temple this semester. And construction work has picked up for Matt, who's feeling hopeful for the first time since last January, when his second wife died.

"I won't lie. We're still really sad and hurting," he told me. "The holidays are hard - you miss loved ones even more. When I asked my one daughter what she wanted for Christmas, she said, 'I want Mom back.' "

But the compassion shown Matt by Daily News readers and others has reminded him that angels walk among us.

"I'm hoping, once me and the girls are on our feet again, that we can help someone the way that we've been helped," Matt said. "That would feel really good."

Finally, there has been hope and disappointment for the family of Hannah Max.

Readers may recall that the adorable 13-year-old from Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, is battling neuroblastoma - the cancer that creates tumors throughout the nervous system.

Hannah's needed a brand of treatment unavailable in Rotterdam. Her doctors wanted her to receive it in Philly, at Childrens Hospital, but her insurance company refused to pay for it.

A friend of the Max family contacted me for help, after an Internet search revealed that I'd written in the past about CHOP, neuroblastoma and recalcitrant insurers.

Much chaos ensued - in the form of a long story by me and negative press in Rotterdam - and the insurer had, if you will, a change of heart. Hannah and her lovely parents, Randy and Rachel, temporarily relocated to Philly last February for treatment and returned to Rotterdam a few months later.

Hannah enjoyed a fabulous summer at home with her parents and older brother, Sam, and returned to school in September looking and feeling healthy and gorgeous. Recent medical scans, however, show new tumors, and her prognosis is not hopeful.

Still, after a new round of chemotherapy this week, the indomitable Hannah felt well enough to climb onto a horse at a stable near her home and break into a joyful gallop, her spirit an inspiration to those who love her.

Including yours truly.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: