The Hoarse Whisperer

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Treatment for vocal chord disorder leaves reporter nearly speechless
Tuesday, May 2, 2000
by Jeffrey Cohan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Staff Writer

You know that obscene call you received, with the heavy breathing on the other end of the line? Relax. It was just me. Before you call me a pervert, you should know that doctors say I have spasmodic dysphonia, a rare neurological disorder that constricts the vocal chords, producing a strained voice. To treat it, doctors injected botulism toxin -- Botox, for short -- into my larynx about a month ago.

That's right. Botulism. The same deadly poison you get from consuming a can of bad nacho cheese.

Any day now, once the Botox wears off a bit, my voice should sound better than it has in years. The toxin will weaken the muscles in my larynx, easing the constriction of the vocal chords. In the meantime, the toxin has virtually paralyzed those muscles, leaving me with a whispery voice, akin to heavy breathing.

Now you can call me a pervert.

But, honestly, I dread making phone calls. If you answer, I can barely make myself heard. And if you don't, I don't have the vocal postage for voice mail.

I'm telling you, Botox takes away your voice for a couple weeks. If only Dick Vitale would try it.

I took two sick days, figuring I couldn't do my job without speaking. A reporter who can't conduct interviews is like a dairy farmer who can't milk cows. (I hope my sources forgive the analogy.)

But I hated to miss work. You have to understand, I am the Arnold Horshack of journalism. I never get sick. I always show up. There goes my gold star for perfect attendance.

One friend suggested a career change: Mine.

The thing is, my doctor told me I could return to work immediately after the Botox injection. He just warned me to stay out of noisy bars, so that I avoid straining to speak above a din.

Obeying my doctor the same way I used to obey substitute teachers, I went to a noisy bar. But I didn't want to take any chances. I wanted to make good and sure that I really strained my vocal chords. So I took a friend who has impaired hearing.

Here is a snippet of our conversation that evening.

Me: Pssss fssss tssss ssss.

Her: What?

I haven't been to many bars since.

My biggest concern is that people will think I'm a jerk. More than they already do, I mean. Without a voice, I'm giving the world the silent treatment, or something close to it.

I went to the rained-out season opener of the Pirates. A few fellow yinzers tried to strike up conversations with me. I could only nod.

"So how 'bout this rain?"

Nod.

Yeah, I'm winning a lot of popularity contests.

But contrary to what the people who met me at the stadium think, I'm polite. Maybe too polite for my own good.

For instance, I had this nightmare a few nights ago. The phone rings. It's somebody selling something. But I'm too polite to hang up. So I try to interrupt the man's spiel and tell him I'm not interested. Except I have no voice. I can't stop him. He keeps going and going.

I tried to wake myself up. Then I realized I wasn't dreaming this. It was really happening to me.

After what seemed like an eternity, the phone solicitor prepared to close the sale.

Him: Are you ready to take advantage of these tremendous savings, Mr. Cohan?

Me: Pssss fsss tssss ssss.

Then I hung up.

So, as you can see undergoing treatment for spasmodic dysphonia is no fun. I shouldn't complain, though. I could have something much worse, like cancer or heart disease.

Besides, even if I did complain, nobody could hear me.

Jeffrey Cohan covers Allegheny County government for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette