Experts Save Singer’s Voice, Help Many Others
By Catherine Duncan
Wade Bowen started teaching himself to play the guitar at age 17 in his hometown of Waco, Texas. By 19, he started playing professionally. Hailed now as a Texas Country singer, he was first a member of the band West 84 until pursuing a solo career in 2001.
Since then, he has released nine solo albums and two albums with friend Randy Rogers of the Randy Rogers Band. His life is consumed with balancing family life in New Braunfels and touring throughout Texas and the United States.
However, in 2018, Bowen had his first real threat to his career and his livelihood when his voice started to fail him.
“I had never had to cancel a show. I never had any real problems. I dealt with allergies or a cold before but nothing I couldn’t deal with and still perform,” he said. “I started having issues with my voice in January 2018. Then, I woke up on March 18, and my voice was gone. All I could do was whisper.”
Bowen headed to Waco so his godfather who is an otolaryngologist could examine his throat. His godfather said there was hemorrhaging on his vocal cord and “told me to stop singing and seek help. I sang that Friday and Saturday night, and I shouldn’t have. My voice was truly gone then.”
He flew to Nashville the next Tuesday for an appointment at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center for Otolaryngology and Communication Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The doctor there told him to take a break from singing for three weeks. Because he didn’t live in Nashville and treatment would be long term, she referred him to Blake Simpson, M.D., director of the UT Voice Center at UT Health San Antonio. Dr. Simpson completed a fellowship in Laryngology and the Care of the Professional Voice at Vanderbilt.
“It was priceless having someone I could go to in San Antonio,” he said. “After examining my throat that April and May, Dr. Simpson decided rest wasn’t making my throat any better. That is when he decided to do the surgery.
“Dr. Simpson told me there were four or five procedures that could be done, but he wouldn’t know how to proceed until he could get in there and see my vocal cords.”
Dr. Simpson, an otolaryngologist specializing in voice disorders, said because of all the bleeding around Bowen’s vocal cords, it was not clear what was going on. “From what I could see, it wasn’t just bleeding; it looked more serious than that.”
TIME FOR SURGERY
By taking him to the operating room and putting him under anesthesia, the team could determine the extent of his laryngitis. On May 31, 2018, Bowen underwent a three-hour procedure.
“We found a couple of things. Wade had scarring on his vocal cords that might have been there for a while. This would be normal wear and tear from singing since he was 20. This is not unusual for singers,” he said.
In addition, Bowen had prominent blood vessels on one of his vocal cords. The location of the blood vessels made the bleeding more profound. “I knew that some of the wear and tear I saw gave him his distinct, raspy tone. I didn’t want to ruin that,” he said.
The voice team decided to use a KTP laser, which is a powerful greenlight laser that only targets the red blood vessels and does not affect the surrounding tissue. “You eliminate the vessel. It can’t bleed if it isn’t there. I also injected steroids to reduce the swelling.
“I really didn’t want to do anything radical. I didn’t want to take away what is Wade,” he said. “It was a conservative treatment. He recovered well from it, and then he began working with Rachelle Speer, our speech pathologist, on vocal efficiency and vocal hygiene.”
Dr. Simpson said he also recommended that Bowen see John Nix, singing voice specialist with the Department of Music at The University of Texas at San Antonio. “While Wade was healing, John took over and helped him learn to reduce the stress on his vocal cords when he is singing.”
While recovering, Bowen saw the voice team once a week. “Working with the speech pathologist made me more cognizant of my voice. I learned to stop talking way back in my throat. It is so much easier on my voice,” he said. “The voice therapy at UTSA taught me about breathing and how to take the pressure off my vocal cords while singing. Both types of vocal rehab really helped me build back my confidence.”
On July 3, less than five weeks after surgery, Bowen sang at his first show after three months of cancelling show after show. “I sang about half of the show. Friends kept jumping on stage with me to sing parts for me.”
By November, he had his voice back.
“I can’t say enough great things about the UT Voice Center. They saved my career. I’m so thankful my sound wasn’t affected. I really feel that my voice is better and stronger now,” he said. “Every person I met at the UT Voice Center was first class. They worked as a team and knew what was going on with me. They understood my situation and all worked together to help me continue singing professionally. I am so thankful.”
NOT JUST SINGERS
Laura Dominguez, M.D., laryngologist at UT Voice Center, said there is a common misconception that only singers are professional voice users. Many others rely on their voice for their livelihood. Teachers, lawyers, group exercise coaches, physicians and sales professionals are just a few of the individuals who need their voices to work.
“We help all kinds of people with voice disorders. It is a basic function that most of us take for granted,” she said. “We also help people with eating, swallowing and breathing disorders.”
The UT Voice Center is a multidisciplinary, state-of-the-art clinic and is part of UT Health Physicians, the faculty practice of the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio. Located in the Medical Arts and Research Center at 8300 Floyd Curl Drive, the center offers office evaluation, surgical care and therapy services.
“All new patients are seen by a physician and a speech pathologist at the same time. It is great for the patients to have the speech pathologist in the room too. It helps patients understand the basic functions of their voice,” she said.
Dr. Dominguez said most of the patients they see have voice or eating disorders. Patients may have a paralyzed vocal cord, a polyp on a vocal cord, or a neurological disorder, such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis, that affects speech and swallowing abilities.
“Treatment can range from voice therapy to surgery. A lot of patients have a combination of both of these treatments. They do very well with the combined care,” she said.
Dr. Dominguez said the center has an excellent success rate because it is on the cutting edge of laryngology. “We are able to offer all the treatments. Many of these treatments can’t be found elsewhere.”
Some people are not aware they can get help for voice and swallowing disorders, she said. “I talk to patients who have been suffering for years and didn’t know there was a specialty just for voice and swallowing.
“One patient could only whisper after his vocal cord was paralyzed after spine surgery. When he had his first grandchild, the child was never able to hear his voice. He wanted to be able to talk to her and make her smile.
“He had medialization laryngoplasty (vocal cord implant surgery) and for the first time could speak to his grandchild. It was huge for his quality of life,” she said.
Dr. Dominguez said the center’s staff is very active in national and international academia and present at conferences around the world.
“I believe our academic and research work makes us better physicians. We are up to date on new and best practices for our patients. We are able to make their lives better,” she added.