When a bout with bronchitis left her speechless, a local radio personality needed to restore her voice to save her career.
For about six weeks after getting sick Thanksgiving weekend, WKDD (98.1-FM) morning show co-host Jenn Ryan was unable to talk louder than a whisper. Her gravelly, inaudible voice forced her to take an extended leave from the on-air job she loves.
But thanks to a tip from a listener that led her to a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, Ryan has found her voice.
She returned to the show last week, sounding like herself again.
“I love what I do,” she said. “Truly, I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Ryan, 34, decided to pursue a career in broadcasting after graduating from Ohio State University. While working in a bridal shop and planning to go to graduate school, she heard a DJ on a Cleveland radio station one afternoon and thought, “I could do better than that.”
Looking back, Ryan believes it should have been obvious her gift of gab would become her profession.
“I was the kid in school who always on my report said, ‘Jenn talks too much in class,’ ” she recalled.
After graduating from a local broadcasting school, Ryan worked for nine years at radio stations in Louisiana, California, Utah, Alabama and Illinois. About a year ago, she returned to her native Northeast Ohio to co-host WKDD’s morning show with Keith Kennedy.
Ryan's problems started the day after Thanksgiving, when she developed a nasty cough and lost her voice. Though she started feeling better soon after taking an antibiotic for bronchitis, her voice didn’t improve.
“The rest of my body felt fine,” she said.
An ear, nose and throat specialist prescribed a steroid to reduce swelling of her vocal folds, also known as the vocal cords. In time, she was told, her voice would return.
As the weeks passed, she became more concerned. Kennedy and WKDD management were supportive, but she feared her long-term ability to work in the radio industry would be jeopardized if her voice didn’t return or came back sounding different.
“I was afraid for my career,” she said. “What if it never came back to normal?”
About two weeks ago, a listener sent her an email mentioning a story he had seen recently on ABC World News about a Dr. Claudio Milstein, a voice specialist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Neck and Head Institute who has treated singers, actors and others with voice problems from across the country.
Within a couple days, Ryan had an appointment with Milstein, who determined she had “functional dysphonia.”
The condition is diagnosed after an exam and testing determines the anatomy of the larynx is normal and the voice loss isn’t caused by disease or a tumor.
Functional dysphonia can occur after an upper respiratory infection or trauma, Milstein said. Illness or injury can cause an imbalance of muscle tension in and around the voice box, preventing the vocal folds from vibrating in the normal way.
The more the patient strains to speak, the worse the condition can get.
The resulting voice loss can last for weeks, months or even years without proper treatment.
In Ryan’s case, Milstein determined her vocal folds weren’t coming together normally and her larynx had shifted too low in her neck. She also had tension in the muscles around and inside her larynx.
During an hourlong appointment on Jan. 12, Milstein used a noninvasive process he has fine-tuned to release the tension and move the larynx back to its normal spot.
Milstein often explains the treatment to his patients by saying: “I'm going to manipulate your neck and your throat, just like a chiropractor does.”
“You keep working until you start getting the kind of sounds that you hear to be more normal or less hoarse,” he said.
The outpatient treatment typically is covered by insurance, depending on the plan's benefits, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
About 85 percent of patients are better after a single treatment, Milstein said. In the vast majority of cases, the problem doesn't recur.
By the time Ryan left her appointment, she was able to speak in nearly her normal voice again. The following week, she returned to Akron's airwaves.
“I was so excited to be back,” Ryan said. “I'm very thankful.”
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.