World’s Second Larynx Recipient Speaks: ‘The Doctors Found My Voice’

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AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Brenda Charett Jensen, 52, the second-ever recipient of a voice-box transplant, uttered her first words two weeks after surgery — and 11 years after losing her voice when a breathing tube damaged her airway during surgery. They were “Good morning” and “I want to go home.” Her daughter wept. This week, Jensen’s doctors at the University of California-Davis Medical Center reported the success of her 18-hour surgery, which took place last October.

Jensen received a donor’s larynx, part of the windpipe and thyroid gland. In 1999, Jensen had lost her ability to speak and to breathe normally; until the larynx transplant last year, she had to breathe through a tracheotomy tube and speak using a handheld electronic voice synthesizing device. She had also lost her senses of taste and smell.

Her complex surgery, which took two years to plan and was carried out over the span of two days, was a rare occurrence. The Los Angeles Times reported:

A transplant is not a standard option for people with a missing or nonfunctioning larynx because it is a complicated and experimental procedure and because the condition is not life-threatening. In addition, the transplant recipient has to take immunosuppressant medications, which can be dangerous, for the rest of his or her life. Jensen was already taking immunosuppressant medications, however, because of a kidney-pancreas transplant in 2006.

Jensen can now smell and taste, and through therapy to improve swallowing, she now eats and drinks on her own.

The only other voice-box transplant recipient is Tim Heidler, whose surgery took place at the Cleveland Clinic in 1998. Heidler spoke with CNN:

“It’s changed my life dramatically, being able to talk and communicate,” said Heidler, a Pickerington, Ohio, resident, who speaks in a low, husky voice.

Without the ability to communicate, “the stress is unbelievable,” he said. “You either write it down or sign language or communicate with a robotic device. It’s not easy.”

Patients who lose their ability to talk usually stay home, he said. Thirteen years after his surgery, Heidler, 53, said he never regretted having the operation, despite having to take daily anti-rejection drugs.