• Losing My Senses

    by Christy Carl-Sillman

    In the summer of 1996, at church camp, we were asked to take a vow of silence for an entire day. This was intended to be an exercise in meditation and self reflection. I had the hardest time with it. After all, I am a very chatty individual, and we were at summer camp for goodness sakes! That day seemed to drag on and I about exploded with words when the sun finally set.

    Little did I know that only a few years later that same silence would be a prison I would live in for almost two years.

    Part of the pre-op process is to go over a signed consent where the physician explains the potential complications which may occur. You can imagine the list my surgeon had to cover prior to my open heart surgery. At 17, I was the one signing the consent, and because I was focusing on the “death and dismemberment” part of the list, I tuned out the rest. This wasn’t exactly an elective surgery, so it didn’t really matter.

    I had BIG dreams at 17. I was a theater geek, who lived to act, sing, and dance. I had just graduated high school and was planning on attending college as a theater major. Then at some point I would head off to Hollywood to become a star.

    Ahhh, to be that naïve again.

    I am an incredibly social person, always trying to be the life of the party. One of my general goals in life has always included making people laugh.

    So, when I woke up after surgery, elated to be alive, you can only imagine my horror when I opened my mouth to say “I love you” to my family, and nothing more than a weak breathy whisper escaped my lips.

    I don’t remember “you may lose your voice and thus all your dreams of being an actress” being on that list of complications. Apparently there was some medical equivalent of that, which obviously I didn’t understand.

    The doctors explained that there is a large nerve which runs down the chest which the surgeon had to get through on his way to my heart, and that this nerve controls a lot of things, including my diaphragm and vocal chords. They suspected the surgeon bumped the nerve causing the left side of my diaphragm and left vocal cord to become paralyzed. They had no way to tell how long it would take for the nerve to regenerate, but “hopefully only a few days”. The surgeon was adamant that he did not cut the nerve. So I was discharged home with a “wait and see” approach to the issue.

    I spent the next few months recovering physically from having my chest sawed through and ribs cracked open, but fell into a deep depression as every morning I woke up and spoke out loud to myself in a test to see if my voice had returned over night. All I would ever hear was a faint whisper.

    You can probably think of several ways being mute would suck, but here are my top 5:

    1) Going through a fast food drive-thru only to have the operator say “hello! Is anyone there?” as you try to whisper out your order.

    2) Not being able to sing in the car or shower.

    3) People constantly saying “oh stay away I don’t want to get sick!”

    4) Trying to socialize with that cute guy at a raging party.

    5) “What?” “Huh?” “Speak up!”

    I saw an ENT who offered to do surgery to correct it. I said no. I had had my fill of surgeries.

    I started college and entered as a theater major. I even got my first job. Over time I morphed into this shy and reserved person, and became a really good listener. Nothing like who I was before the surgery.

    I questioned God a lot about why this would happen, but eventually I climbed out of my depression and realized that I was lucky to even be alive, and I just needed to make the best of my situation. Maybe I would become a world famous mime?

    Well, many years later, long after my right vocal cord started doing the work for the left one and I regained a new breathy and raspy voice, I discovered that this period in my life served as an extended self reflection and meditation. Monks voluntarily take a vow of silence, but since mine was forced upon me I think I had a different type of self meditation.

    I never would have figured out that I didn’t need a college degree to be an actress and therefore discovered a passion for health education and health care without my silent prison.

    I don’t think I would be the self-reflective and empathetic person I am today.

    I truly believe everything happens for a reason. I am who I am because of the personal growth this “handicap” provided me. You never really know what you have until you lose it. Besides, I like my new voice, and I can sing now – every single day to my son. He is all the audience I’ll ever need.

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