Losing, then finding her voice becomes a work of art

Wednesday, May 5, 2010 — Imagine what life would be like if you completely lost your voice, for months. Had to have surgery, then had to take medication that caused hallucinations, severe loss of appetite, short-term memory loss and a feeling of hopelessness.

A UNC-Pembroke art professor loses her voice after an illness. However, with the help of the UNC Voice Center, not only does she find her voice again, but she turns the rediscovery into works of art.

CHAPEL HILL – Imagine what life would be like if you completely lost your voice, for months. Had to have surgery, then had to take medication that caused hallucinations, severe loss of appetite, short-term memory loss and a feeling of hopelessness.

Then, three months of therapy with a speech pathologist before you could say one simple, single-syllable word. Months more therapy after that before you could speak an entire sentence. A year before your voice returned to a functional level.

This is what happened to Margie Beth Labadie, an artist, adjunct assistant professor and coordinator of the Digital Academy at UNC-Pembroke. She’s someone whose career depends in part on speaking at length to a classroom full of students, and that career was threatened when she started losing her voice after coming down with the flu in March 2007. By the time she first saw voice disorders specialist Dr. Robert Buckmire at UNC Hospitals two months later, “my voice was nearly nonexistent,” Labadie said.

Buckmire examined Labadie and recalled later that her examination revealed a very atypical picture, including “whitish masses” involving the vocal folds. "We initially treated her with medication, but we proceeded to surgery rapidly, as she failed to respond immediately," Buckmire said.

A sample of tissue sent to the microbiology lab resulted in an extremely rare diagnosis: laryngeal aspergillosis, an infection of Labadie’s larynx or “voice box” caused by exposure to an aspergillus fungus.

“Margie is the only patient I have seen in more than 10 years of clinical practice who had this diagnosis,” Buckmire said.

Now, three years later, Labadie has been able to resume her teaching career and is grateful to Buckmire and his team at the UNC Voice Center, including speech pathologist Ellen Markus, for their work in helping her regain her voice.

“Ellen must have tried a hundred ways to get my vocal folds vibrating when in mid-August one silly sound she asked me to repeat helped me turn the corner on my physical healing,” Labadie said. “That sound was: ‘Foooooom.’ As dumb as it sounded, I could make that sound and I could say it clearly and normally.

“Ellen said, ‘That’s your word,’ and she proceeded to make vocal exercises for me based on that word. I could say those sounds normally, too. I had begun to find my voice.”

How would you cope with such an ordeal, while it was happening, before you knew if you’d ever be able to speak again? Labadie used it as inspiration to create a series of 11 beautiful, striking works of digital art, which she calls the “Finding My Voice” series.

“In August, when voice quality measurements were taken to evaluate my progress, I was thrilled to be exposed to the visuals of the Voice Center’s medical software. With them, I discovered a path toward the psychological side of healing: my own artwork,” Labadie said.

Labadie used visuals captured by the medical software as the foundation for her Finding My Voice images. “I used all the visual data I could from the software programs. Unintelligible to the untrained eye, the visuals helped Ellen understand my progress. But to me those visuals were a source of inspiration,” she said.

She describes the series this way: “This set is about the destruction of my voice by fungus, the damage to my vocal folds which needed surgery in order to save them. It is also about the sounds made to recover the voice and the drugs taken to ensure total destruction of fungus in the body.”

On Friday, May 14, Labadie is donating three of these pieces to the UNC Voice Center at Carolina Pointe, at the intersection of NC Highway 54 and I-40, where they will be on permanent display.

Media contacts: Stephanie Crayton, (919) 966-2860, scrayton@unch.unc.edu or Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

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