Conor O'Brien, second from right, will be participating in BWH's World Voice Day celebration.

Conor O’Brien, senior project manager in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, travels around the country educating firefighters about the importance of getting a good night’s rest. O’Brien depends on his voice to do his job, and he was hard at work when he first noticed some trouble.

“I was in Seattle, training a group of firefighters, and I was struggling to speak,” O’Brien said. “It was a big concern.” His anxiety was heightened due to the fact that he also sings in a band and teaches private voice lessons.

Conor was seen by BWH otolaryngologist Dr. Jayme Dowdall, who diagnosed him with laryngopharyngeal reflux, a condition linked to stomach acid that causes heartburn and irritates the larynx. Conor received intensive speech therapy with BWH speech pathologist Chandler Thompson, DMA, MS, CCC-SLP, and was soon back to work, singing and teaching.

“You don’t realize how much your voice matters until it’s gone,” said Conor.

Fittingly, “Voice Matters” is the slogan for World Voice Day, an international celebration and awareness day for the human voice and the power it gives us. To showcase the importance of voice and raise awareness in an entertaining way, the BWH Division of Otolaryngology hosted a special event with musical performances by Dr. Dowdall, Dr. Thompson, and patients Conor O’Brien and Meryl Galaid.

“The voice is so much of who we are,” said Dr. Dowdall, who has special expertise in addressing issues and conditions affecting the voice. “We want people to know that they don’t have to suffer from vocal problems; we have a team equipped with the expertise to help people overcome these issues.”

Meryl Galaid, a singer and actress, sought the help of Dr. Dowdall when her voice began to feel strained from a cold prior to performing in a long-running production of Les Miserables. She then worked with Dr. Thompson for voice therapy, learning about the physiology of the throat and ways to better care for her voice. This was especially important for her work at Children’s Hospital, where she is part of Clown Care, a community outreach program of the Big Apple Circus. Dressed as clowns, Galaid and her colleagues visit young patients at the bedside, singing to them and entertaining them to lift their spirits. “Our job is to change the energy in the room,” Galaid says, noting how emotional this role can be.

Dr. Dowdall points out that vocal problems are not only an issue for singers and performers, but also for anyone who significantly stresses their vocal cords.

“It might come as a surprise, but working in a hospital often requires a lot of voice use,” she said. “Interpreters and administrative assistants are talking all day in person and over the phone. Physicians talk all day during clinic and can spend hours dictating notes and teaching students. As part of our academic mission, our physicians and scientists are traveling across the U.S. and abroad to lecture and participate in courses to share their leading-edge research. We often try to power through when we have vocal difficulty, but there is treatment and therapy we can provide to help.”

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- Adam E.
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