Temporarily Speechless

In late January, I underwent throat surgery to remove a cyst from my vocal cords. The most common side effect, according to my doctor, would be a possible chipped tooth. This would seriously suck, even though I know I’m not the most photogenic person without hairstyling assistance. But there was also a small possibility that I could lose my voice. Permanently.

(Here are the flowers my co-workers sent over. They are so sweet.)

As a high school English teacher, this had the potential to significantly alter my professional and financial life. As someone who likes to share her opinions with others, and who does so somewhat loudly, it had the potential to be a total disaster.

I approached the surgery as calmly as possible. My voice had been steadily declining all of last fall, and that was after more than a year of increasing raspiness. When I taught classes during the week to my high school students, my voice was constantly raspy, my throat was always sore, and occasionally my voice would disappear momentarily. This was incredibly inconvenient when I was lecturing freshman and sophomore students about their favorite subject: English. (It’s ok guys. I know most of you don’t love English. I still love you.)

While my high school students were somewhat oblivious to my vocal problems, the adults who attend a creative writing workshop I lead once a month, noticed it immediately. For months they’ve been volunteering to read for me because my voice is always worse on Saturday. Not surprising when your weekdays are easily filled with six or more hours of talking just during working hours.

Everyone was kind when I told them about the surgery. They said the things you’re supposed to say when you learn someone will be going under the knife. But I was trying to ignore the possibility of becoming a permanent mute, and not being entirely successful at it, despite my relatively calm demeanor. (At least I think it was a relatively calm demeanor. You guys will have to let me know if you saw through it.)

On the morning of the surgery, I woke up at about four am. I wanted to be clean under my hospital gown even if I had been instructed to refrain from using lotions, hair products, or make up. My father had recently had his own, much more serious surgery, and he had an important post operative appointment that could not be rescheduled. I would probably be home before he had to leave that afternoon, but I didn’t want him exhausted from sitting, and pacing around a waiting room for several hours. He was still healing after going under his own knife, or laser, and my procedure would be performed in a simple outpatient clinic. No hospital time required.

My mother had to drive him around still, and felt the need to chaperone him a little bit longer, so my grandmother was asked to escort me to the clinic where I would be sliced open, or rather where my throat would be sliced open.

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(It’s not the best picture, I know. But I wasn’t allowed to put make-up on. And I’m trying to FEARLESS, so I’m sharing it anyway.)

After check-in, she followed me back to the pre-op room. Is that what it’s called? We chatted while I watched medical people swim outside my room like busy bees, or ants, or maybe sharks, and I waited to be knocked out. Already attached to the bed via an IV, I crossed my legs at the knees to keep the purple hospital grown from betraying my sense of modesty. And I tried not to think about what I would do if I did lose my voice.

I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if these few words shared with my grandmother would be the last words that would leave my mouth, forever.

In the weeks after the doctor revealed the small chance that I would lose my voice, my mother had suggested I could learn sign language if the worse happened. I could even become a teacher at a School for the Deaf. Sign Language is something I’ve always wanted to learn, so I wasn’t opposed to the idea, but I couldn’t quite imagine having to learn it so that I could support myself financially, or even so that I could communicate my basic requests, opinions, and needs with the world. 

I won’t pretend to know what its like to be deaf, or mute. And I know people who rely on sign language to communicate are equally competent, capable, and valuable to society as the rest of us. But I was genuinely, if quietly, scared about the possibility of losing an ability I had taken for granted, despite being in a profession that makes references to things like teacher laryngitis. (A lot of people incorrectly assumed that’s what was wrong with me.) I was scared and I was about to face the surgery that could take my voice away from me forever.

Eventually a good looking anesthesiologist came in and added a few choice medicines to my IV. (Good looking, smart, and considerate. It was a nice great combo.) I warned him that I was overly sensitive to the stuff. The last time I’d had any type of procedure the anesthesia knocked me out longer than they expected, and I didn’t want to stay at this horrid out patient clinic any longer than was necessary. (To clarify, everyone was very kind and considerate, but my anxiety level was approaching hyperdrive while I was wrapped up in my purple gown.)

Eventually they told me it was time to be wheeled out, so I said goodbye to Grandma and she wished me luck. I was fast asleep before I was out of the post-op area. At least I think I was. That part is a little fuzzy. I don’t remember being in the operation room, except for a few flashes when they were setting me up.

And then, it was over.

When I woke up from the surgery it felt like my tongue had been transformed into a painful, dry, sock sized, weighted cotton swab. I wondered how my mouth was even able to close. Once I was aware enough to dress myself (no easy feat while still under the lingering effects of the hot doctor’s anesthesia), I was sent home. On that rainy Monday morning, while I sat slumped in a wheel chair, I waited for my grandmother to get the car, and forced myself to drink the icy cold apple juice the discharge nurse sent with me. (As a funny side note, I’ve never been a huge fan of apple juice because my stomach can’t, or couldn’t, handle it in the morning until after I’d eaten. But, since the surgery, I can’t seem to get enough to the unfortunately colored liquid. Its definitely better cold, so my circular bottles of Martinelli’s have to spend some time in the fridge before consumption.)

I was pretty out of it right after surgery, though I stopped taking the pain meds after two days. There’s only so much Norco can do for a numb tongue. Thankfully that was the main complaint, beside coughing. I think I used the Norco once more after that because I was having trouble sleeping. Lets just say a swollen tongue is not the easiest thing to sleep on when you’re used to planting the now tender side of your face into a pillow each night.

If was several days later, when I was approaching the end of my Week of Silence, before I allowed myself to return to the possibility that my voice had disappeared forever. It seemed more of a possibility after living on frozen yogurt for a few days, and dealing with a tongue that was still three sizes to big and mostly numb. Before surgery, the doctor told me that I would not be allowed to talk for a full seven days after the cyst was removed. My first post-op appointment wasn’t until day nine and I was becoming anxious again. So, on day eight, officially past the mandatory Week of Silence, and hidden in my bathroom to avoid being yelled at by my mother, I finally spoke my first words.

I can’t remember exactly what I said. It was something in the form of a question. “I wonder how my voice sounds? (Original, I know.)

The answer was, not surprising, weird. My voice was raspy still, and really breathy, like too much air was coming through my vocal cords. I did not sound like me, at all. And it freaked me out more than a little. I wasn’t going to tell my mother that I had spoken, even a few words, because she wanted me to wait until my appointment the next day. (She’d been yelling at me all week to not cough or clear my throat. More no-nos according to my discharge papers, but ones that were significantly more difficult to honor than mandatory silence. Coughing is a reflex most of the time, and bodily reflexes are not easy to stop.)

Despite my plan to wait, within the hour, less probably, I’d texted her to say that I had broken my vocal fast and that my voice sounded strange. I was expecting her to have me say something so that she could hear me and, hopefully, dispel my concerns. But she just told me to stop talking. We’d see the doctor tomorrow. 

My dad’s eyes widened at the news, also sent by text. I think his first response was questioning whether my mother knew that I had spoken. I suppose we both imagined I’d get into trouble with her. (She can be a bit over protective, but that’s because she loves me. It’s what all moms do.)

Now, several weeks later, when I do have my voice back, albeit a quiet voice that is almost immediately accompanied by a sore throat if it is used for more than five to ten minutes, I am relieved to know that I will not HAVE to learn sign language in order to survive. (Thought, truthfully, I am probably more interested in learning it now than I ever have been. It would be a great excuse for always talking with my hands, a habitat that drives my mother crazy and was even commented on by an advisor when I first started teaching.)

My voice, thank goodness, still works. My anxiety was unnecessary, which is often the case, and once I am released back to work by my doctor, my students will have the benefit of having me talk their ears off once again.

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(Be afraid my pretties. Be very afraid. I have my voice back and I’m not afraid to use it.     At least I won’t be once the doctor has cleared me.)

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