Man loses voices, learns eye-opening lesson

Man loses voices, learns eye-opening lesson »Play Video
SEATTLE -- A Seattle man says he learned the hard way about the danger of taking things for granted.

Jim Underhill fell ill last year. And as he began recovering, his voice grew softer and softer. He didn't realize it at the time, but he had a lesion on his vocal cord, and it was costing him his voice. Before long, he could barely raise it to a whisper.

"It got to the point where people would say, 'I can't hear you. Can you speak up?'" he said.

Underhill had quit smoking three years before his illness, but his voice only got worse. He was suffering from dysphonia.

Being unable to talk shook his confidence at work where colleagues took over his client presentations. He felt isolated, even when having dinner or drinks with friends. The silence changed every aspect of his life.

"It's amazing how much you take your voice for granted until it's gone," said Underhill.

Underhill went to Dr. Tanya Meyer for help, and a fiber-optic scope exposed the problem. The doctor found a non-cancerous lesion on Underhill's right vocal fold, and bruising on the left.

"These lesions make it so that the two vocal folds can't close evenly," Meyer said.

Vocal folds vibrate like the strings of a guitar. The lesions are like bubble gum placed in between. In both instances, you can't make good sound.

Underhill took the doctor's recommendation for a limited surgery this past spring. Over a three-week period, not a single word crossed the man's lips.

"Whether it's a phone call or whether it's saying hello, and even catching myself saying something to the dogs like, 'Let's go for a walk,' I couldn't do that," he said.

Meyer is part of University of Washington School of Medicine's otolaryngology department at Harborview Medical Center. She teamed up with a speech pathologist to help speed Underhill's recovery.

"And the patient has less visits, and we think a better outcome," Meyer said.

Gone is the scratchy whisper of Underhill's past. Left behind is a new appreciation to treasure even the smallest gifts.

"Made me realize how good I have it as far as a social life, as far as a job, and how close of losing something like your voice impacts all of that," he said. "When you can't talk at all, then it was like, 'Wow, this is rough.' You get trapped inside your head."

Surgery gave him a second chance, and a whole new perspective.