Getting Her Voice…Again

Many of the children admitted to the inpatient rehabilitation unit at Kennedy Krieger have experienced a trauma or illness that resulted in needing a procedure called a tracheostomy. The procedure involves placing a tube in a patient’s neck to help him breathe, but the downside is that it robs them of the ability to speak. Seeing a child with a “trach” tube in place can be heartbreaking for the casual observer. Seeing your own child with it is devastating.

As a mom, it is hard to imagine my boys without the ability to speak. Not hearing their voices greet me or saying “I love you, Mommy” would be unbearable. I am inspired by parents who learn to live with this loss.

However, many of our patients are able to recover and ultimately get their tracheostomy tubes removed.

I should probably tell you here that I am a huge Disney fan. And every time I encounter a child who’s undergone a tracheostomy, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Disney characters, Ariel, from the Little Mermaid. When her voice was stolen from her by an evil witch, it was only through the miracle of love that she recovered the ability to speak and sing.

For kids with a tracheostomy, though, it takes much more than a kiss to restore their voices. The first step in the process is the placement of a speaking valve. And, even without the kisses and fireworks, the first time that valve is placed is an emotional experience.

One of my patients, Sarah Eber, was a typical bubbly teen until she had a severe illness called Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS).  ARDS is a life threatening condition in which an infection causes an inflammatory response which can destroy lung tissue.  Many do not survive ARDS, especially older people.  Luckily, Sarah was young and healthy before she ended up in the ICU on a machine that was breathing for her.  

Thankfully, Sarah survived ARDS.  She was left weak and required a ventilator to help her breathe when she became my patient on Kennedy Krieger’s inpatient rehabilitation unit. During her time with us, she grew stronger and stronger. She eventually recovered enough to breathe on her own and she started using a speaking valve. Once she could speak again, Sarah’s true spirit and personality was able to shine. I will never forget Sarah’s smiling face as she used her voice for the first time in months. It was beautiful.   

I remember watching Sarah call her parents for the first time with her speaking valve.  She was beaming.  I can only imagine how relieved her mother and father were to hear their girl again.  Their joy was evident on their faces when they saw her in person following that special phone call.

Of course, for our patients, the process of recovering their speech and voices isn’t as quick as for Ariel. It takes time and practice and therapy. But just like Ariel, our kids face enormous challenges to return to health and ‘sing’ again. And just like Ariel, their emotional triumphs seem made for the big screen.

Dr. Suzanne Prestwich

About Dr. Suzanne Prestwich

Dr. Suzanne Prestwich is the Medical Director of Kennedy Krieger’s Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit.
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5 Responses to Getting Her Voice…Again

  1. Sally Ortega says:

    Beautiful story. Beautiful, strong girl. Wonderful, gifted doctors. Blessed family! ~S. Ortega

  2. Alice Zehrbach Ms. "Z" says:

    I taught Sarah throughout elementary school. I was her vocal general music teacher. Sarah worked everything around her until it was just right and then she made life happen. She did it again with prayer, the Doctors from Kennedy Krieger and a God centered family. ~ Ms. “Z”

  3. Annette D'Amico says:

    What a lovely story, it made me cry! I love this family and am so happy that they had a happy ending! Way to go, Sarah, and thank God for the staff at Kennedy Krieger!

  4. Jacob Burger says:

    I’m Sarah’s uncle who lives in Hawaii. Her aunt Laura and I were fortunate to be on a trip to Germany where we could stop in and see Sarah while at Kennedy Krieger. It was tough to see her in such a state but I knew she was in good care. The positive energy was so thick you could cut it with a knife. She couldn’t talk but she was speaking volumes with those big beautiful eyes, especially when she shed a tear in frustration because she wanted so badly to speak to us. I knew that she had the strength to get through and she did.

    It gave me goose bumps when listening to a voice mail, a couple weeks later from Sarah telling us that she really needed to talk to us (Laura and I) because she has good news for us and “we’re going to be really happy”. Of course she got her “trach” removed and wanted to tell us. I saved that message to a .mp3 file on my computer because that moment was triumphant for her to be able to call and speak to us, and I wanted to keep it forever.

    We are a proud aunt and uncle and love her very much. Thank you to all the staff, specialist, therapist, friends, and family who cared and brought our boisterous Sarah back to health.

  5. Dr. Suzanne Prestwich says:

    It is so nice to hear from the people that care so much about Sarah. Sarah is a strong and confident girl and I feel lucky to have been a part of her successes here at Kennedy Krieger.

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