Therapy helps repair Mizzou senior’s vocal cords

By Jacob Luecke

This story is featured in the Fall 2013 edition of myBoone Health magazine. Click here for a free subscription.

Singing is a big part of sorority recruitment week at the University of Missouri.

Each year, members keep the tradition of performing songs and chants in front of their houses. They proudly — and loudly as possible — belt out tunes to attract the attention of prospective members standing along the sidewalk.

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Dana Willsey

Last year, Alpha Phi sister Dana Willsey took part in the fun.

“All the best girls wear the ivy.

All the best go Alpha Phi.

All the best girls wear the ivy.

Gotta, gotta go A-Phi!”

As the week progressed  — through countless hours of singing, talking and socializing — Dana, a junior environmental engineering major, noticed she was losing her voice.

At first, she wasn’t concerned. The same issue happened during her sophomore year. At the time, she rested a bit and her voice came right back.

But this year, even weeks later, her voice never seemed to fully recover.

“It was awful,” Dana said. “Sometimes I wouldn’t speak up in class because of it. I would get nervous if I was asked a question because I didn’t know if my voice was going to squeak or give out. I was very self conscious.”

This lasted through the entire semester. Back home in Kansas City for winter break, she decided to get it checked out.

She went to a local ear, nose and throat specialist who performed a laryngoscopy, placing a scope down her throat to visually examine her vocal cords. The problem was clear — Dana had developed vocal nodules.

Nodules are essentially calluses that develop on the vocal cords, said Stephanie Zink, a Boone Hospital Center speech pathologist. Nodules can be caused by loud singing, yelling, speaking in loud environments and even excessive throat clearing.

They impede the vocal cords from coming together to form the vibrations used to create speech.

“Think of it like trying to close a book with a hard raisin the middle,” Zink said. “It’s like that. The vocal cords just won’t close tight like they would otherwise.”

Dana’s physician referred her to Boone Hospital where she had 10 weekly sessions with Zink.

Dana learned specially-designed vocal exercises that sooth the nodules by wrapping them in healthy sections of vocal cord. She was told to practice them as much as possible during the week.

The exercises looked and sounded a little unusual — to get an idea, open your mouth wide, stick out your tongue out and make a throaty “E” sound — so Dana found time alone to practice.

But she also had the support of her identical triplet sisters, who would do the exercises with her in the car as they traveled back and forth to visit parents and friends in Kansas City.

Using the treatment plan she learned at Boone Hospital, Dana felt her voice improve. When she went back to her ear, nose and throat doctor, the nodules were gone.

Dana said she was very pleased with the care she received.

“It was great,” she said. “Everyone was very professional and very friendly. I feel like I formed a really good relationship with my therapist. I felt like she really, genuinely cared.”

Vocal nodules are just one example of the multitude of issues Boone Hospital’s six speech pathologists are trained to handle. Their diverse skill set can help people who have a wide variety of ailments beyond speech issues. They also help patients of all ages who have problems eating and drinking.

But because the mechanics of their work are often invisible, people are generally less aware of the kinds of successful treatments speech pathologists can provide.

“Many people don’t realize all that we can do for them,” Zink said. “Speech can be a hard sell, but once people get into it, they feel it’s very beneficial.”

Now in her senior year, Dana is eager to begin interviewing for jobs. Ideally, she wants to stay in Missouri near her family in an engineering job that allows her to work with water.

Thankfully, her voice won’t be an impediment as works toward that dream.

“When you walk into an interview and meet a potential employer, that’s intimidating enough,” she said. “But it’s much more so if you’re not able to speak and address them in a proper way.”

Dana said she’s thankful she sought help for her speech issues, and she advises others to do the same.

“I think a lot of people with this problem get in a rut and think this is how it’s going to be,” she said. “I want people to know that there is something they can do about it.”

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