In this town, silence can be deadly When D.C. voices fail, specialists offer aid

March 18, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With all the talking in this town, somebody was bound to get hurt.

In a city that makes its living blaring its opinions, some folks are pontificating to the point of injury. They still talk. The problem is, nothing comes out.

"All of a sudden, I needed a microphone in a room of 10 people," said Paul Forbes, 68, who runs a local consulting group that keeps him talking, literally, all day. "If you have a squeaky little voice, you're not going to have as much influence -- you're not going to project an image of authority and competence. I practically had the microphone in my mouth."

But here in the capital city, there is a solution. To bring back the voices of over-talkers, a growing number of specialists are offering help.

While there are only about 25 major voice clinics in the country, this city is home to two of the largest -- at Georgetown and George Washington universities. Voice abusers make up two-thirds of the business at Georgetown, and are a big reason for the GW center's planned expansion this year.

At these clinics, the professional expounders try anything to get better. They sit still as cameras are shoved down their throats. They deep-breathe. They think about tongue positions. They sing scales, punch their vowels and squirt themselves with steroid sprays.

Of course, not all patients damage their voices by overuse -- many suffer problems from accidents and disease. But a reliable stream of patients comes from the analyzers, politicians and pundits. They are everywhere, these People Available for Comment.

And they have learned a sobering lesson: Without a voice, it's no fun being a talking head.

Just ask Forbes. While leading a discussion about micro- and macro-economic trends at a convention of the National Association of Realtors last year, his once-resonant baritone deteriorated into a rasp. He was frightened. He was speechless.

All those 30 years of consulting -- enhanced by his fondness for screaming in the car after tense meetings -- had finally caught up with him, he thought. He found an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose and throat doctor), who diagnosed him with bowed and flabby vocal chords.

The solution came in the form of Jerome Barry, a voice teacher affiliated with the GW clinic and a professional singer. For $80 an hour, Forbes sings, reads aloud and gets advice on almost every body part that could affect his voice.

"Get in touch with your tongue," Barry told him during a session last week. "Keep your weight in your feet. Keep your rib cage up. OK, now, don't chew like that with your mouth. Straight line out of your body. Give me more power!"

The technique might not make too much sense to the uninitiated, but for Forbes it's doing the trick. "In April," he said proudly, "I'll be speaking almost the entire month."

Many Washingtonians are eager to do the same. When faced with the option of (a) learning to speak differently or (b) stop talking already, it's no surprise which one they choose.

At the George Washington voice clinic, voice abusers are learning to talk all over again. They start by undergoing tests. Patients say sentences such as "We mow our lawn all year" while experts stick electrodes into their larynxes. They submit to a long narrow probe -- fitted up their nose -- that takes overhead shots of their voice boxes with a tiny camera.

Often, chronic talkers are diagnosed with inflamed or nodule-ridden vocal chords -- the muscles in the voice box that help create sound. In a healthy larynx, the chords vibrate gently, releasing puffs of air that are transformed into the voice.

Treatments for voice abusers are varied. Most often, patients go the simple route, choosing speech therapy and common-sense care for their throats.

But some of the city's biggest talkers want an even quicker fix.

"With these politician types, it's relatively immediate -- they wake up and their voice is gone and they have to give a speech that day," said Dr. Thomas Troost, an otolaryngologist at Georgetown. He recommends a steroid inhaler -- a fog shot down the throat that reduces vocal chord swelling and temporarily masks hoarseness.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recently published a guide to help politicians save their voices, instructing them to avoid shouting, stop all excessive throat clearing, drink plenty of clear fluids and get lots of rest.

"Try to keep quiet; don't even whisper," the guide offers. "It may be difficult to do, but reducing your talking, or simply being quiet, will often help."

Even President Clinton, who has perpetual hoarseness due to allergies, tries the silent treatment.

But 33-year-old Lyndon Boozer can't, at least he doesn't think so. His job as a government lobbyist for the Federal Communications Commission depends on nonstop chatter. Boozer, who admits to a rambunctious set of chords, started going hoarse shortly after arriving in Washington 11 years ago.

"I couldn't lobby. I couldn't do my job without my voice," he said. "I was having conversations and people couldn't listen."

The troubles culminated in a distressing episode. Boozer was accompanying FCC Chairman Reed Hundt to the Democratic National Convention. There he was, getting a private audience with the boss, and his voice left him.

He couldn't say a thing all day.

After that episode, a doctor examined Boozer and found a nodule on his vocal chord, the result of voice overuse and misuse. Boozer learned breathing techniques. He started drinking jugs of water every day. He stayed away from receptions. He got extra sleep. He ate better.

Anything to keep from going silent.

Pub Date: 3/18/97

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