Skip to Content

Published on February 17, 2014

She’s Loud and Clear About Benefits of Vocal Cord Surgery and Speech Therapy

Debbie Whitsel“When I stop and think about it, everything I do relies on my voice,” said Deborah Whitsel of Gladwin.

Whitsel’s 21-year career downstate kept her on the phone almost nonstop. Now retired in Gladwin, she uses her voice to command her purebred German Rottweilers and speak with people nationwide who call about puppies from her kennel. In addition, on Saturday nights she is the karaoke hostess at the Eagles Club in Albright Shores, a role she’s enjoyed for 26 years.

“I come from a very musical family, and we all like to sing. At the Eagles, I help get people on key, sing duets with them, and give them encouragement and support,” she said. “I just love to do it. It’s one reason I moved up here from Grand Blanc.”

Last year, symptoms of polyps on her vocal cords had Whitsel concerned. She knew from experience that hoarseness lasting more than two to three weeks should prompt a doctor visit. The condition had already occurred twice in the past, and now she worried it might jeopardize her happy retirement.

“I start getting hoarse and losing my voice for no reason,” she said. “My voice gets rough or breathy and cracks, and I can’t hit high or low notes. I feel short of breath and can’t control my breathing, which is especially important for singing.”

Otolaryngologist Philip Harris, M.D., of the ear, nose and throat practice with MidMichigan Physicians Group, confirmed the diagnosis of polyps on her vocal cords, and when they discussed surgery, Whitsel already knew the possible downside. “The vocal cords are in layers,” she said. “Scraping off the polyp, which resembles a blister, can leave scar tissue, so that when you sing or talk, the effect can be like hitting a bump in the road or having too much air get through if the vocal cords can’t fully close.”

When Whitsel told Dr. Harris she wanted to make sure she could still sing, talk, and get her dogs’ attention, he suggested a procedure called transoral injection laryngoplasty. As a follow-up, he recommended speech therapy to improve the way she used and supported her voice. Whitsel was glad to find she could receive both the procedure and the voice therapy close to home at MidMichigan Medical Center–Gladwin.

During outpatient surgery, Dr. Harris removed one polyp from each side of Whitsel’s throat and then injected a tiny amount of special gel into her vocal cords where the polyps had been. The gel created a smooth surface that allowed the vocal cords to move across each other without obstruction.

During about a month of recovery, Whitsel was careful to avoid straining her voice. “This was my third surgery for the problem, and I’m doing everything in my power to avoid a fourth,” she said. She had already stopped smoking. “I smoked for 33 years, and ended up with COPD, but I couldn’t imaging holding my grandchildren with an oxygen tank, so I quit,” she said.

Learning to control her voice would take different skills, for which Speech Therapist Glenn Laffy, M.S., C.C.C.-S.L.P., became both her teacher and coach.

“He told me I could change the way I handled my voice, and I did. I learned how to control my ‘excited’ voice and give a firm command to my dogs without straining. I start with less power and less volume and work up, fading in my voice instead of “barking” out,” she said. “It takes concentration and focus, but it still has impact.”

The surgery and therapy have definitely improved Whitsel’s voice. “The way I control my voice is different now, and I don’t sound hoarse; I sound clear. A lot of my clients tell me my voice is clearer now. Dr. Harris went beyond the norm to make sure this surgery fit my personal needs,” Whitsel said. “The procedure and follow-up worked for me and my lifestyle.”

Those who would like additional information about treatment options for vocal cord disorders or other conditions affecting the ear, nose or throat may call MidMichigan Physicians Group at (989) 839-6201. Office locations include Midland, Clare, Gladwin and Mt. Pleasant. For information on Dr. Harris or his colleagues Herbert Camp, M.D., Joe Chomchai, M.D., and David Roden, M.D., visit www.midmichigan.org/doctors.