It’s a cool evening in Southern California and I’m on a gastropub patio with close friends. Between flights of fancy beer I don’ t know how to appreciate, the conversation takes a dive towards territory familiar to me but foreign to most. Maybe it’s the quiet of the street or the handcrafted alcohol in our bloodstreams, but a question is asked for which I have no easy answer. This leads into a long back and forth over matters none of us have advanced educations in, yet we carry on with the concerned diligence of men trying to save the world. I’ve had talks like this before with others, I’ll undoubtedly have them again, and it always starts with the question.
Chris, what can we do to help your voice?
When I was fifteen, I became sick with what medical science termed “super pneumonia”. For over three weeks, I enjoyed a medically induced coma while my body fought off the disease. Part of the procedure involved an intubation tube inserted down my windpipe. Complications can occur and one of them is reduced vocal chord function. To look at my vocal chords now, there is a hole in the back where the two sides refuse to meet. I went in to the hospital with a young male voice on the cusp of puberty and came out with the loud whisper I have now. Many of my friends have never heard what I consider to be my real voice, and many more probably can’t remember it. It’s not their fault, it’s nobody’s fault. Bad things happen and you’re not invited to the pity party.
Month or two after drinks at the gastropub, I’m speaking with my new doctor when he asks me the same question my friends did. What have you had done about your voice? I tell him about the procedure performed by the specialist ears, nose & throat (ENT) doctor back in my small hometown a year after I lost my voice. The procedure didn’t work. He scoffs and says he knows a guy, writes me a recommendation. There’s confidence in his words and I believe him. His attitude says the rest. This is California, the big leagues, not some backwater Appalachian village. Something can be done. I leave his office with an appointment to see his guy at the nearby University.
Anything sounds possible when it’s backed by a University.
I get a ride from a friend to the specialist’s office, its location on a campus does not lend itself to easy parking for me. The waiting room is typical, the front desk is far too tall to be of use to me. I sign in holding the clipboard as far down as its chain will allow. They direct me to an exam room which features a big chair like the kind they have at a dentist’s office, a metal tool chest and the usual disturbing anatomical posters. I sit in the big chair. The doctor enters, he looks like Leslie Nealson in his golden years. We make the usual smalltalk, except he can’t understand most of what I’m saying. I’m the only one giggling about it. He announces it’s time to take a look at my vocal chords and retrieves a long, black fiber optic cable from the metal chest. With a few squirts of anesthetic, he’s ready to begin. I tilt my head back and relax my body.
Then, the fiber optic cable goes up my nose.
Up up up my nose and down the back of my throat so the Doctor can exam my vocal chords. He peers through a machine the fiber optic cable is connected to and instructs me to make different sounds so he could see the chords move. To simulate, stick your longest finger up the nose and tickle the back of your throat. While you do that, we’ll pause for a brief moment of stand up comedy, written down.
“So this online dating thing, you heard about it? I tried making an account on OKCupid, but I mistyped and ended up meeting a girl on OKCuspid, the dating site for dentists. Still went out for dinner, but conversation was tough. No, not because of my voice, she kept asking me questions while my mouth was full.” Pause for laughter.
This is what I think about while the Doctor peers through his instrument. It feels like the weirdest dentist visit ever. Few long minutes later, he pulls out the cable. It tickles. Anxious and feeling snotty, I ask him for an immediate diagnosis. He nods for a few moments and then says something I desperately want to hear.
There’s a reasonable chance we can fix your voice. Come back next week to speak with my younger colleague.
A reasonable chance. Outside, my friend picks me up and we bump hip-hop on the way home. Immediately after I tell him the good news, I go into Don’t Get Your Hopes Up mode wherein I tell everyone not to get their hopes up. Don’t get your hopes up. Alone at night, I imagine all the things I could do with a normal voice again. Drive thru is top of the list, but so is launching a rap career and running for president. All things one needs a voice for, especially the drive thru.
The last time I did a drive thru independently was when Burger King sold Star Wars watches. It was crushingly embarrassing when the voice from the speaker box on the menu asked me to pull around before I could finish my order. The things one does for a Yoda watch.
Secret hopes are unavoidable and I collect many in the week between appointments. A different friend, one from the night at the gastropub, drives me to the second appointment. I tell him not to wait, I don’t know how long this will take. I’ve never discussed a surgical procedure on my own before and I want to make sure I get all the information. Surgery is scary, yo. Before I let him drive off, I remind my friend not to get his hopes up.
The waiting room is the same and after ten minutes I’m back in the exam room sitting in the big chair. I expect another visit from the fiber optic cable and try to calm myself down, but my heart refuses to quit pounding. The doctor enters, it’s the younger colleague. He ignores my nervous small talk as he looks at files he brought with him. Are those mine? No reply. Maybe he can’t hear me- Don’t get your hopes up. I try again. Where do we begin with this thing? I always use technical terms when talking with doctors. The young doc cuts me off with a single phrase and reality snaps back in to place.
There’s nothing we can do. Sorry.
I ask if I need to make a follow up appointment. There’s always a follow up appointment and right now it’s the only thing I know to do. The doctor doesn’t know. As soon as I’m out of the exam room, he’s gone. I walk myself out. My friend comes to get me. After I tell him the news, I immediately assure him I’m fine. I don’t know if he believes me, but I need to believe me. We get sandwiches at a local deli. I pay attention to the way they stack the ham in between the cheeses. I don’t remember our conversation.
This experience stripped away my awe towards big city medicine and reinvigorated my respect for the small town doctors back home. To be fair, my hometown has a University. Sometimes I wonder though, in the quiet hours, if I had spoken up in the beginning, if I had kept faith in the expertise of professionals who told me over a decade ago there was nothing to be done, if I had never seen the specialist in California, would it have hurt more not to try than it did for having believed in a reasonable chance? I don’t have an easy answer.
Don Quixote tilted at windmills and look what happened to him.
What’s fascinating to me about these conversations, the seeds that plant hope in my mind, is how persistent everyone is that I not give up. I think humanity’s most endearing quality isn’t our obsession with kitten pics or world peace, but our stubborn insistence that something done can be undone if we only put our energy towards it. I’ve never had to argue that my congenital syndrome can be “cured”, if you’re born with it then people seem to accept it. However, my voice is something others refuse to give up on and I love them for it. Except it hurts. It hurts because every time I think, even for a moment, just maybe this is it, the person, the conversation that leads to the doctor, to the procedure which finally restores my voice. But reality always snaps back into place, often sooner for me than them. It’s not their fault. I could tell them to shut up, but I don’t because I too am human. I choose to climb up on Don Quixote’s steed and couch the lance. I see the same giant. If it’s quiet, you’ll hear my whispered battle cry. Charge!
I give the windmill a reasonable chance.