Published on March 6th, 2017


Vocal Folds and Verbal Art

By Kristin Harrison, BA

An email message that says “Luke king four word tooth Ann hexed chat!” may seem like a grammatically incorrect or nonsensical string of English words but, to me, it is a typical message from my wordsmith of a granddad, who happens to be looking forward to our next Skype conversation. In many ways, my granddad has inspired my interest in language and the profession of speech-language pathology. From helping me to visualize the letters of a word in my head in order to spell them backwards, to supporting me in my program application with a poem about the roles of an S-LP, my granddad, Alan Gooding, is a master of verbal art.

For a large part of his life, my granddad was exposed to written language through working at a newspaper for 10 years, a magazine for another 10 and by writing a biography and rhyming verse in his spare time. In recent years, however, he has encountered difficulties in other aspects of his communication — in particular, his voice. In 2009, he began to notice hoarseness in his voice that would not go away. It took a great deal of self-advocacy, multiple trips to physicians, along with laryngoscopies to discover that he had a squamous cell tumour on his left vocal fold. After his initial surgery — that thankfully ended without need for radiation — he realized he would never be able to speak the way he did before. At this time, I was aware of the fact that my granddad now ‘whispered’ and had to stand close to me and others when speaking; however, there are many other adjustments that come along with this lifestyle change — or communication disability.

When communication does not work effectively, it can be extremely frustrating for all individuals involved. Over the years, my granddad has come to experience many new obstructions to communication, such as having difficulty over the telephone, in the car, or asking a salesperson for coffee in the grocery store. In retrospect, he has been able to reflect on comical events of miscommunication. When my granddad once asked a Walmart associate where the Folger’s coffee was, she responded with “We don’t have a photocopier”. My personal favourite is when he and his wife were looking for a place to stay overnight while driving to Winnipeg. My granddad read aloud a sign that said ‘Shady Lakes Campground’, only for his wife, who was reading a book, to respond “That’s a weird name for a campground, Shave Your Legs!”

For two years, he had to adjust to whispering and to moments of miscommunication. The initial surgery, however, was not the end of his vocal experience. At a 2011 checkup, my granddad’s doctor suggested that he might respond well to an implant in the left vocal fold that would narrow the gap between his vocal folds and make it possible for him to regain at least part of his speech. He considered the implications and, without hesitation, nodded and smiled his agreement for the surgery. He was warned before entering the OR that the surgery would take about two hours and he would be restrained and conscious throughout, so that he could answer any question and ensure that, when the implant was inserted, it was in the correct position. The surgery proceeded normally and eventually the implant was inserted. He was now aware that his voice was not quite the same as his previous one, but it did enable him to communicate with the world.

It was at this time that he sought out an S-LP. Due to a two-year wait time to book a session with an S-LP in the public health-care system, he had to pay for a private therapist. My granddad has explained to me the disillusionment he felt at the amount of effort he would have to expend to make even small gains. He also has expressed that given his post-surgical situation, his treatment was not individualized for his needs and, in particular, the psychological and sociological aspects that needed to be considered while dealing with the healing process in his throat. After two years of frustration of having to whisper to everybody, he was now faced with a new challenge: accepting his “new voice” and learning what communication styles work best for him, so he can effectively converse with others. In September of last year, he became a volunteer and member of the Jet Aircraft Museum in London, Ontario and, at the first monthly general meeting, held in a large aircraft hangar, he found it almost impossible to make suggestions as his voice did not carry well. At subsequent meetings, he addressed this problem by notifying the convenor before the meeting about any points he wished to make; the convenor then brought up the items on Alan’s behalf. Through all these hardships and hurdles, he maintains a cheerful outlook tempered with a sadness that he can no longer sing, a hobby he (and his wife) greatly enjoyed before his surgery.

As his granddaughter and as an S-LP student, I have learnt a great deal about his resilience in adapting to a changing voice and how communication affects all aspects of our lives, including who we are as individuals. A particular lesson I have learned from my granddad is the many forms in which ideas, thoughts and feelings can be expressed. The manipulation of words and sounds can be used for decoding emails, making funny puns, or even expressing the journey of experiencing a vocal dysfunction. An example of this use of words is his poem entitled ‘Diplophonia’.

I now have diplophonia—
(That means I’m diplophonic.)
I’ve never been ‘bi-tonier’—
I almost feel harmonic.

My voice has such a ‘funny’ noise
That makes me sound quite manic.
My therapist, with perfect poise,
Said, “Now, before you panic,

“We’ll see what we can do to fix
This worrisome condition.
I’ll try and find some easy tricks
That put you in remission.

“Your vocal hygiene tops the list
So here’s some preparation:
Maintain good health (I must insist!)
This might be your salvation.

“Your diet, sleep and exercise
Must balance every minute,
Or you will only jeopardize
The time you’ll have put in it.

“So drink a lot of H2O
And eat more fruit and veggies.
If you do this, your voice will show
Improvement round the edges!”

So now I have to start my work,
And exercise comes later.
If I should even start to shirk,
I’d feel just like a traitor.

So off I go to get a start,
(Not later—do it SOONER!)
Who knows, this 80-year-old fart
Might end up as a crooner!

About the author:
Kristin is a first year speech-language pathology student at the University of Toronto. She completed her BA at Western University in linguistic anthropology and English. In 2015, she studied languages and literature at Tours University in France. Kristin is currently an SAC student representative for the University of Toronto.

About the poet:
Alan has been involved with communications for most of his working life, having been employed as an editor, a publisher, and a proof-reader at a daily newspaper in London, Ontario. The social implications of his loss of a “good” speaking voice have had a negative impact on an important part on his life. From being high-spirited when socializing, he now spends his time being a little less gregarious. Alan’s latest endeavour is going back to his roots, where he enjoys working on projects for people seeking editors and proofreaders.

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