Five years ago, Mary Payton couldn't hold a conversation without her words slurring and her body contorting with each strained syllable.
But as she spoke yesterday about a new technique that enables people like her to "get their voice back" within two weeks, not a stutter could be detected.
"There was a lot of physical effort just to carry on a conversation," Mrs. Payton said of her debilitating speech problem. "To all of a sudden be able to speak normally is a marvelous gift."
Mrs. Payton, an Ellicott City resident, is one of five Marylanders who have been treated by the Greater Baltimore Medical Center for spastic dysphoria, a vocal cord condition that causes the voice to tremble, strain or slur.
The treatment involves injecting the vocal cords with botulinum toxin, or Botox, a chemical simulation of the food poison approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a means of regulating the rare voice disorder.
The disorder afflicts about 13,000 people in the United States, most often women. It usually affects people in their 40s or 50s, and is more common in the Jewish population than others. The cause is unknown, although doctors said it appears to be a neurological problem.
Doctors said patients receiving the treatment must go back to the hospital on an outpatient basis every three to six months for more toxin injections. Each injection costs about $500.
"I wasn't very comfortable being injected with something that could come out of spoiled green beans," said Mrs. Payton, director of continuing education at Essex Community College. "But it worked, and I got used to it." She has had four treatments, the last on May 27.
Botox previously had been administered to people who had facial tics or suffered from abnormal blinking. The FDA recently approved Botox for the new use when it was found to control the speech impediments of spastic dysphoria patients.
GBMC is one of the first facilities to administer the procedure.
Dr. Samuel Lumpkin, an eye, ear and throat specialist who performed the procedure at GBMC, said injecting the chemical relaxes overactive muscles around the voice box that are rubbing together and prevent sound from escaping the throat.
The only side effect seems to be the emergence of a raspy voice for a week after treatment. But Mrs. Payton doesn't seem to mind.
"If I sound like Marilyn Monroe for a week after sounding like Freddy the Frog, that's absolutely fine," she said.