The Hoarse Whisperer - by Jeff Price
My singing voice is not what it used to be. But then, according to logic, medical fact, and my own Laryngologist, I shouldn’t be singing at all - considering that the nerves to my right vocal cords were severed during a surgical mishap. But the story of how I lost, (and found), my voice, really begins with my hands. I had been a working singer-songwriter-guitarist for most of my life - never rich, never famous, but always working. That all ended - abruptly and without warning - in the fall of 2000, when a disk suddenly ruptured in my neck, and the corresponding vertebrae collapsed onto the nerves that went to my hands. The result of this - besides an unrelenting, excruciating pain in the back of my neck - was that my left hand was rendered numb, and my right hand was contorted into a useless claw. If I ever wanted to play guitar again, I would need Cervical Spinal Fusion - and soon, I was told, or the condition with my hands could become permanent. But when I met with the orthopedic surgeon to go over the procedure, I was surprised to learn that the incision would not be made in the back of my neck, where the pain and the problem seemed to be, but in the front of my neck, alongside the trachea. I could visualize the trajectory that such an incision would have to follow in order to reach the cervical section of my spinal column - and that my larynx was in close proximity to this path - so my first and only question was, “Will there be any risk to my voice?” I was given a very precise and specific answer: “Of all the people who have this surgery, only 3% complain of some temporary hoarseness afterwards - from the anesthesia tube.” I did a quick calculation in my head: If I don’t have the surgery, there’s a 100% chance that I will never play guitar again; and if I do have the surgery, there’s a 3% chance that I might have some temporary hoarseness for a few days. Sounded like good odds to me.
The surgery was scheduled for January 3, 2001, at 9:00am; and, as instructed, I reported to the hospital at 6:00am for pre-op prepping and sedation. Then, at 9:00am, when the surgery was scheduled to begin, a nurse came into my room and informed me that the surgeon was running late, that they were sending me home, and asked me to return at noon. At noon, I again arrived at the hospital, was again prepped and sedated, but this time was placed on a gurney and wheeled out into the corridor and parked outside the operating room - where I remained for the next seven hours. Finally, at 7:30pm, the surgeon arrived and I was wheeled into the operating room.
The following day, as I lay in my hospital bed enjoying my morphine drip, the surgeon stopped by to perform a few rudimentary tests, and determined that the surgery had restored normal function to my hands. But whenever he asked a question, I was not able to answer - and it wasn't because of the morphine. I could feel my lips moving, but no sound was coming out of my mouth. The surgeon did not seemed too concerned about this, attributing it to the ‘temporary hoarseness’ of those three-percenters.
But even in my stupor, I knew it was more than that. A month passed, and nothing improved. I would go into my studio and pick up a guitar, happy to be able to play again, but when I tried to sing, the best I could manage was a painfully hoarse, monotone, and barely audible whisper. Eventually I noticed that something besides my voice was missing, something that had been a part of my singing for so long that I thought little of it - until it was gone: Musical notes that I could see in the back of my mind. Ever since I was sixteen years old and began singing, they'd been there, just little black dots on a staff that served as a guide whenever I was performing or recording. I never thought there was anything strange about this mental phenomenon. As far as I knew, it was a normal visual/vocal connection that all singers have - and for me, it was just an assurance of sorts, an indication of my range: as long as I could see those notes in the back of my mind, I knew I could reach them with my voice. I didn't see anything back there anymore.
I finally went to see an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist - where I learned that, despite my orthopedic surgeon's very precise and specific odds against vocal damage, the nerves to my right vocal cords had been SEVERED. And when this same surgeon was informed of my career-ending prognosis, his professional and legal-counseled response was to tell me that 1.) it was "just bad luck - like driving down the road and hitting a patch of black ice." 2.) I had signed a waiver, stating that I understood the risks of the surgery and, in effect, promised not to hold him responsible; and 3.) I still owed his office $1,800 for what my insurance didn't cover.
Four years passed. And in that time, I fluctuated between varying levels of rage, despair, and disgust. My guitars and other instruments began collecting dust. I quit writing. I stopped listening to music. In fact, if it had anything at all to do with music, I wasn't interested. It just hurt too much. Music had saved my life. Music had guided my life. Music had been my life - and now there was a gigantic, concrete wall separating the two.
Then in early 2005, through an acquaintance, of an acquaintance, of an acquaintance, I heard about a Dr. James Thomas, a world-renowned Laryngologist who specialized in voice disorders in general, and singing problems in particular. For months I tarried in the limbo of "why bother?", but eventually I figured it wouldn't hurt to check out the guy's website - where I learned, to my surprise, that Dr. Thomas had also pioneered a procedure for repairing vocal cord paralysis. Hhm.
At my first appointment with him, he explained that the procedure involved attaching a Teflon plate to the back of the paralyzed cord, then suturing the corniculate cartilage back to the center of the larynx. A day surgery, Dr. Thomas said, two hours max, ice cream afterwards - and even a “guarantee” that I would sing again. A month later I had the two-hour surgery, the follow-up ice cream, and an appointment to return for a post-op exam in six weeks.
After five weeks, however, there was no discernible difference in my voice. I called Dr. Thomas, but was assured that there was nothing to worry about. After four years of non-use, half my larynx had atrophied; and there was probably still some swelling from the surgery itself. Very reassuring, he was - until the following week, at my post-op appointment. With the scope down my throat and Dr. Thomas viewing my larynx on a TV monitor, I could not help noticing that he had a somewhat concerned, if not confused look on his face, and he had yet to speak a word. He then reached for the video tape of my pre-surgery exam, brought that up on screen, and kept switching between the two views, comparing how things looked before the surgery, and how they looked now. At last he turned on his stool, pulled the scope out of my throat, then stood and left the room - still without a word. Five minutes later he appeared in the doorway, looking down at the floor, and clearly upset about something. Finally, he spoke. “This has never happened before, but not only did the surgery not work, it actually made things worse. I'm sorry. You're just going to have to accept that you will never sing again.”
It was a very long drive back home - and when I finally got there, I decided there was nothing left to do but go to bed and stay there - which I did, for three days. Then one night, at two in the morning, wide awake and with nothing better to do, I went outside and stared up into the dark, silent sky. I wished I could scream a little rage at Who I secretly knew was responsible for all this - but of course, I had no voice to scream with. But in that silence came a thought. Not a voice, but a thought so foreign to my way of thinking that I couldn’t help but hear it: “The only thing that separates you from God, or Life, or Spirit, or Wholeness, or Healing, or whatever you want to call It, is your belief in the separation.”
Great. On top of all my other problems, I now have a metaphysical, self-help guru in my head telling me that I'm somehow the problem. Thanks for the pep-talk.
I sat down in the grass and closed my eyes - and when I did, all I could see was a high and thick cinderblock wall, right there in front of me, in my mind.
Another thought came, a simple question: “Do you believe what you are seeing, or are you seeing what you believe?”
The answer came when I imagined my hand reaching out to touch the wall, and found that it was not solid after all, but rather fluid, like liquid light. My hand passed right through it. Curious, I imagined passing my entire self through this liquefied, shimmering wall of separation. Interestingly, once on the other side, I turned around and the barrier was gone altogether. Had it vanished somehow, simply by passing through it? Or was I just unable to see it from the other side?
I opened my eyes. There was no thunder, no lightening, no shivers or goosebumps, I heard no fluttering of angel wings, or a chorus of of saints singing Hallelujah, and I didn't see Jesus standing in front of me with a smirk on his face. What I did see, were little black dots in the back of my mind, like musical notes dancing along the lines of a staff.
I hurried back into the house, into the studio, dusted off a guitar, and...
And one week later - on my birthday of all things - I performed in public for the first time in four and a half years.
It's been 15 years now, and I'm still performing, recording, and singing - perhaps not with the same volume or even tone I once had - but you know what? My voice sounds truer to me now than it did before, more authentic, more connected to God, or Life, or Spirit, or Wholeness, or Healing, or whatever you want to call It. And to keep it that way, I've tacked a small but boldly-printed sign on the wall of my studio, right behind the vocal mic where I cannot help but see it when I'm singing. Like those little black notes in the back of my head, it's a note that not only tells me what is within my range, but serves as a handy reminder whenever I hit a wall in the recording process, or with my creativity, or with living. It says, simply: “The only thing that separates you from any of life's gifts, is your belief in the separation.”
Or, to put it another way: Sometimes it takes a Hoarse Whisperer to discover your true voice.
(Authors note: All documentation supporting the veracity of this story - including pre and post-opt photos of the larynx, Doctor’s notes, and medical records - can be provided upon request)