New surgery can help patients who lost voice get it back

What would life be like if you could not talk?

There is a good chance you will never find out.

However, for the thousands of people who suffer injuries to their voice boxes, their speech can be one of the first things to go.

Now, surgery can help bring their voices back.

78-year-old James Palmer and his wife have been married for 53 years, but something is missing.

Mr. Palmer's voice started to go after laryngeal cancer surgery 50 years ago. After a second surgery 10 years later, it was gone.

James says, "When they got done with that, I didn't have no voice. I just whispered."

For years, he wished there was something he could do.

"Just to be able to communicate clearly, have people understand me."

UNC surgeon Dr. Robert Buckmire offered Mr. Palmer a solution -- an implant procedure that could restore his voice.

Dr. Buckmire says, "The point of the implant is to open the voice box and to medialize, or get the vocal folds closer together, so that he can achieve speech."

With the patient under sedation and local anesthesia, the surgeon exposes the voice box then cuts thin GORE-TEX strips, layering them in to close the vocal folds. Then, he listens.

Step by step, they work to give him his best possible voice.

Four months later, Mr. Palmer's back to his regular routine, but thanks to the surgery, he doesn't have to whisper anymore.

He says, "Anything's an improvement, and this was better than anything, because I could hear the difference."

The GORE-TEX implant procedure is now one of several available that can help patients get their voices back.


BACKGROUND: Voice is the sound made by air passing from a person's lungs through his larynx or voice box. The vocal cords -- two bands of muscle that vibrate to make sound -- are found in the larynx. For most people, voices play a big part in what they do and how they communicate. About 7.5 million people in the United States have trouble using their voices. People can injure their vocal cords in many ways. Talking too much, screaming, constantly clearing one's throat or smoking can make a person hoarse. These activities can also lead to problems such as nodules, polyps, and sores on the vocal cords. Other causes of voice disorders include infections; upward movement of stomach acids into the throat; growths due to a virus; cancer; and diseases that paralyze the vocal cords.
(SOURCE: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders)

IDENTIFYING VOICE PROBLEMS: The American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery says you should ask yourself the following questions to determine if you have an unhealthy voice:

* Has your voice become hoarse or raspy?
* Does your throat often feel raw, achy, or strained?
* Does talking require more effort?
* Do you find yourself repeatedly clearing your throat?
* Do people regularly ask you if you have a cold when in fact you do not?
* Have you lost your ability to hit some high notes when singing?

GORE-TEX: Doctors can now perform an implant procedure for people with voice problems. With the patient under local anesthesia and sedation, the surgeon exposes the voice box and then cuts thin GORE-TEX strips, layering them in to close the vocal cords. "So to do the procedure, we actually have to, with him awake, open the neck and open the voice box, and we do that from the outside using drills and cutting implements," Robert Buckmire, M.D., from the University of North Carolina, told Ivanhoe. "And then while looking on the inside with our scopes, the same kind that we look at people's voice boxes in clinic, we actually intend to help close the vocal folds by layering in a GORE-TEX implant and pushing over the vocal folds, so that they can get closed."

Stephanie Crayton, MS
Media Relations/Broadcast Manager
UNC Health Care

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