The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: Woman Mimics Birds Better After Losing Voice

It is easy, if you are not born mute, to take your voice for granted. It is also easy to believe that every day you will get the chance to say 'good morning' or 'hello' to a friend or loved one. Not so in Leah Wangui's case after having been retrenched on account of losing her voice.

After 19 years on the job as a naturalist with a specialty on Kenyan birds, Wangui was retrenched from the job she loved the most.

She first worked at the Mount Kenya Safari Club before moving to the Fairmont Mara Safari from where she was retrenched on medical grounds.

Wangui, 46, who also suffers from asthma believes that working in the cold Mount Kenya climate had something to do with the eventual loss of her voice in 2008. Doctors refer to her condition as laryngeal nerve paralysis and she has been battling with it for four years.

Ironically, after losing her voice, Wangui discovered she could better mimic the sounds made by the birds she encountered while working on various tours and safaris. Her ability to mimic these birds consequently earned her the befitting name - Kanyoni - which means 'bird' in her mother tongue.

Wangui has had four yearly medical procedures where several artificial vocal cords surgically have been inserted after the initially surgery in 2009.

"We've been to India four times since her first surgery," says Wangui's sister Charity Kamau. "It cost about Sh1.5 million for the first surgery and we have since spent an additional Sh2 million for the subsequent surgeries every time she has lost her voice again."

Wangui's sister often has to speak on her behalf whenever her artificial vocal cord collapses from subsequent paralysis or as in the first case, from the growth of a keloid which warranted surgery. "There are additional costs like speech therapy after every surgery which is quite expensive here in Kenya."

Whereas in India it costs only Sh400 per session for speech therapy, in Kenya it costs 10 times more for the same two-hour session. Wangui and her sister who always accompanies her to India for treatment thus have to factor in the cost of hotels during her stay.

She needs as many speech therapy sessions as possible to fully recover her voice. There are also no specialty surgeons in Kenya qualified to perform the surgery.

Wangui is at the moment speaking in a barely audible whisper after the recent collapse of her artificial vocal cords which again requires corrective surgery abroad.

"It would definitely be better if a surgeon could do the procedure here because it would probably be much cheaper," Wangui whispers. "But as it is, I have no choice but to travel every year to India for surgery and it's now becoming such a strain on my family."

She adds that there have been times when she has had to go alone to India for treatment and those times were indeed quite difficult due to the language barrier between her and the medical staff at the operating hospital.

This was made more difficult by her loss of speech which also makes it harder for her to communicate her needs. "Everything tastes spicy in India, even the water," her sister says. "When I'm there with her, it's easier for me to communicate some of her needs like fresh vegetables food and water.

After the surgery she eats some vegetables like lettuce which I have to buy for her from the market because that's the only way I can be sure there are no any spices in it. Other than that, I buy her Weetabix which also doesn't have any spices."

Her treatment has long since become a great financial challenge and consequently friends and family are now forming an organising committee to raise funds to meet the cost of thyroplasty - the recommended surgical reconstruction of her vocal cords.

Thyroplasty is a medical procedure designed to strengthen weakened vocal cords. The surgery often changes the length or position of the vocal cords and can be performed to correct voice disorders similar to Wangui's laryngeal nerve paralysis characterised by hoarseness of voice and coughing or choking especially while swallowing.

The procedure is usually done by an ear, nose and throat surgeon as the weakening of the vocal cords can also cause problems with eating or drinking which may in turn lead to malnutrition or unintended weight loss.

In a thyroplasty procedure, a patient is usually placed under sedation and given an anaesthetic. The surgeon then makes a small incision in the neck to access the vocal cords.

After making adjustments and possibly implanting a wedge to strengthen the vocal cords, a surgeon can then ask the patient to talk to allow them to judge the success of the procedure right away or to make the necessary adjustments.

The procedure can take up to two hours in total or longer in some cases like Wangui's where a special implant manufactured in Japan is needed to correct the condition.

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