Talking—or more accurately, ministering—was Father Gene Wilson’s life for more than 48 years.
So when complications from a routine thyroidectomy performed in California left him without a voice and with a permanent breathing tube, he was devastated.
"I had come back to Ohio to start a Spanish-speaking ministry in Cincinnati during my retirement years,” he recalls. "But without the ability to speak, I couldn’t fulfill my life calling as a Catholic priest. I struggled with my new limitations and was a semi-invalid for a year and a half.”
Father Wilson was among 5 percent of patients who suffer from vocal cord paralysis as a result of severe nerve damage after thyroid surgery.
Frustrated and seeking help, Wilson turned to Sid Khosla, MD, a UC otolaryngologist and expert on complicated voice disorders.
Khosla was determined to give Wilson his voice back. But first he had to improve Wilson’s airway and remove a breathing tube. Once that was accomplished, he would rebuild both vocal cords.
When a person speaks, the vocal cords close slightly to create vibrations in the larynx or voice box. Sound is generated when air flows through the larynx.
The vocal cords move apart when a person breathes.
"One of Father Wilson’s vocal cords had become rigid as the result of nerve damage from the initial thyroid surgery,” explains Khosla, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at UC and ear, nose and throat surgeon at University Hospital.
"But permanent inflammation and scarring from additional airway disease and operations also prevented his other cord from moving, fixating the joint. As a result, his vocal cords could not come close enough to talk and his airway became too narrow to breathe properly.”
Khosla used microlaryngeal instruments and a laser to remove the layers of scar tissue restricting Wilson’s airway above the vocal cords and restore movement in the left vocal cord. After several months, he was able to remove Wilson’s breathing tube and focus on rebuilding both vocal cords.
To do this, Khosla harvested fat from the priest’s neck and transplanted it into the joint of the vocal cords to restore the jelly-like layer that allows the vocal cords to move up and down, creating the vibrations that generate each person’s unique voice.
After more than a year of diligent reconstructive surgeries and follow-up therapy to rebuild his vocal cords, Wilson was back on the pulpit to deliver Mass in March 2008.
Khosla says most people don’t realize just how important their voices are until they lose them.
"People tend to think only individuals who have professions that rely on their voices—singers and teachers, for example—are affected by voice problems, but we all have a drive to communicate. Without our voices, that becomes very challenging and can affect everyone,” says Khosla.
"Patients—especially those who are older—often become depressed and withdrawn because they can no longer communicate with friends and loved ones,” he adds. "No one should take their voice for granted.”
Wilson’s voice is still a bit scratchy, but it is getting stronger every day. And he has high hopes for the future.
"There were only two people in the congregation at Mass on Sunday, March 9, when abundant snow had blanketed Cincinnati, but it sure was good to be back after nearly two years away,” he chuckled. "Now I can get back to my spiritual work of sharing with the members, and that is a joyous thing.”