A visit to a communications disorder class at Truman State


Tuesday morning, I spoke to one of the classes at Truman State University.  This class is a part of the curricula for communication disorders.  I met with 20 – 30 fresh faced college students waiting to hear what I had to say.  I do this every year.  My neighbor, Sheila Garlock, teaches in this area at Truman State. She has asked me to speak to her classes every year since about 2004.  I think I first met Sheila when for Halloween, I dressed as a ghost and used my robotic voice mechanism to greet the youngsters who came trick or treating.  Sheila accompanied her children on this outing, but was struck by my use of an electronic voice since she deals with similar electronic voices in her teaching.

Some time after that Halloween experience, Sheila called me to ask if I would be willing to speak to her class.  She explained that these students were studying to be speech therapists, and it might well be one of their only chances to experience firsthand someone who uses such a device.  While I hope to be helpful to anyone in need, I have a particular perspective that might benefit these students in their future endeavors.

Every year the class is somewhat different.  This time it focused on diagnostics.  Other classes have been aimed more specifically at familiarizing the students with some of the speaking options they will have to offer future patients.  I’m given free rein to talk about whatever aspect of speech therapy that might be helpful to the students.

For those of you who have not met me, or perhaps are not familiar with my history, I speak with an electronic device.  I lost my vocal cords in 2000 due to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.  I am unable to make any natural sound that relies on the human voice.  I cannot speak, sing, whistle or hum.  Laryngectomees, (those who have had their vocal cords removed), breath through a hole in the neck, which poses a number of difficulties.  Even simple things like taking a shower can be life threatening if not approached with sensibility.  This is another area in which I can be helpful to these students, and they can in turn be helpful to future clients.

I shared with the students the sensations that led me to doctors in the first place.  I also related to them what kinds of things I have learned that have a profound effect on my life and how I manage various circumstances to insure that I stay as healthy as possible.  The focus was not so much on cancer, but rather on the difficulties that are met by individuals who face a similar medical situation.

Losing one’s ability to speak can be extremely isolating.  Close relatives don’t know how to make things easier for their loved ones. Victims of this severe surgery find themselves unable to express themselves with any clarity at all.  They carry pads of paper on which to write whatever they need to communicate, but that can be cumbersome and a disjointed method of communication. It is not uncommon for those who lose their ability to speak to withdraw from any interaction with other people.  Some have good direction following their surgery.  The problems are not insurmountable. The biggest problems come if they are not introduced to any viable method of continuing a normal life of communication or interaction.

Just the recovery from such severe surgery can take well over a year.  Other problems can follow the initial surgery, requiring additional medical attention to details that may not be immediately obvious.  For example, the thyroid gland is often damaged because of its close proximity to the affected area.  Any imbalance in the thyroid function can cause depression, weight gain or loss, lack of appetite and myriad other symptoms that can indicate additional health problems.

I am greatly rewarded if my visits to the speech therapy classes are of any value at all to students. I feel even further blessed to spend time around the palpable eagerness and energy these students demonstrate.