US woman speaks after rare voicebox transplant

Last Updated: Jan 22, 2011, 00:00 AM IST

Washington: A US woman was reunited on Thursday with doctors who gave her a new larynx and restored her ability to speak after a rare voicebox transplant surgery, only the second ever successfully performed.

Brenda Jensen, 52, a lifelong diabetes sufferer, lost her voice after she was hospitalized in 1998 for kidney failure. Under sedation, she repeatedly ripped out her ventilation tube, causing permanent damage to her larynx.

Afterward, she endured teasing and social isolation as she tried to use a device that generated mechanical speech when she pressed it to her throat. The noise it made turned heads and made her uncomfortable, she said.

"People made fun of that," she said. "They called me the robot lady."

But an operation in October by an international team of surgeons at University of California Davis changed that.

Lead surgeon Gregory Farwell said the difficult surgery, which the team planned for two years, required doctors to knit together the larynx and all its nerves and muscles that help with breathing, swallowing and talking.

"By far it was the most complex thing the team has ever done," Farwell told a press conference. "She thought long and hard about the surgery. It is not without risk, and it is a testament to how brave and motivated she was."

This sort of transplant operation is so rare because it requires patients to take anti-rejection drugs for life, and the pills often weaken the immune system and put them at higher risk for cancer and infections.

For most people, repairing a non-life-threatening condition is not worth such risks. But Jensen was already taking the anti-rejection drugs because she had undergone a kidney and pancreas transplant in 2006, eliminating her need for dialysis and insulin treatments.

"Every day is a new beginning for me," Jensen said.

"I`m working so hard to use my vocal chords and train my muscles to swallow. I`ll probably never sing in a choir or anything, but it`s exciting to talk normally, and I can`t wait to eat and drink and swim again!"

Her raspy voice does not sound like the donor, a California woman who died in an accident, because a person`s voice is forged not by the vocal cords but by the sound as it moves through the mouth, tongue and lips, doctors said.

The surgical team also included Martin Birchall of the University College London Ear Institute in England and Paolo Macchiarini of the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet.

Bureau Report