by Lesley Childs, M.D.

Health Talks

My medical education has supplied more than its share of medical terminology mouthfuls, but I had to tackle this troublesome tongue-twister during an altogether different occasion. I am a singer and have been privileged to record for Walt Disney Records over the years. As that famous song from Mary Poppins proves, the lyrics are sometimes as difficult to master as the tune.

As a recently appointed Assistant Professor of Laryngology in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, it is thrilling for me to combine my musical interests with my passion for medicine at the Clinical Center for Voice Care.

I’m a classically trained soprano, and my love for singing has served as a powerful directing force. My experiences in vocal performance actually introduced me to the field of otolaryngology (ENT). As a high school student, I was a patient of our local otolaryngologist, who has since retired, but at the time was known to care for many singers in the Austin area. I was awed by the possibility of such an intimate association between medicine and the arts, and it was this influential glimpse into doctoring that led me to begin considering a career path in otolaryngology.

After completing my undergraduate years at Yale University, I attended Vanderbilt for both medical school and my residency training. I continued my training by pursuing a fellowship in laryngology up in NYC at Columbia and Cornell, where I helped care for those with vocally demanding careers. Additionally, we focused on those with neurolaryngologic conditions such as spasmodic dysphonia, whose treatment consists of botulinum toxin injections into the larynx.

Indeed, the human voice is unique. Biologically, the vocal folds are unlike any other tissue in the body. Nowhere else does vibration occur naturally and regularly at frequencies ranging from 100 to 1,000 Hz. Because of the continuous mechanical forces acting on the vocal folds during vibration, it has been proposed that the vocal folds have developed specialized mechanisms to withstand such mechanical stress. When the tissue that makes up the vocal folds gets damaged, the voice will sound hoarse or raspy. One of our most important jobs as laryngologists is to help prevent this damage, or to carefully reverse it, either with speech therapy, medical or surgical intervention.

Our goal at the Clinical Center for Voice Care is to work closely with singers and professional voice users to ensure the maintenance of vocal health and to carefully diagnose and treat possible laryngeal pathology. But others may be in need of our services, too—for example, those individuals who struggle with hoarseness. We also care for people with swallowing and airway disorders, as well as those with neurologic conditions affecting voice production, such as tremor or spasmodic dysphonia.

The field of otolaryngology has seen numerous advancements since I started my studies years ago. Indeed, the diagnostic methods and treatment techniques available to patients have come a long, long way from a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.