Fortnightly we at our medical school take the afternoon to go to a local GP surgery and get some teaching from current GP’s and meet a few patients.
We’ve been going for a few weeks now and I must say our GP is a fantastic teacher, one of those highly enthusiastic people who is ready to tell you absolutely everything he knows about a topic.
Back in our first week we were learning initially about general end-of-bed observations and taking an examination of the hands and face. We learnt first and then to practice what we had learnt on a few patients who had some interesting signs.
One of the patients had psoriasis which on examination of her hands was hardly noticeable but then she rolled up her sleeves and we saw that she was covered. From this I learnt not to just take the surface of things, to dig a little deeper and you might uncover something that you’d otherwise have missed. This would obviously have come out in the history but as we just examining the patient today we could have easily missed it.
By far the more interesting case for me, however, was her husband who just came in the capacity of taxi to bring her into the surgery. He had however had a pretty obvious and extremely interesting operation that I had never seen before or knew existed.
Before he even entered the room we could hear him chatting to our GP in a gravelly, very hoarse voice which at first I just thought was his voice until he walked into the room. It was immediately obvious that he was talking through a valve in the middle of his neck which he pressed in order to make sound and let go of to breath. I had truly never seen anything like it.
He told us that he had had a tumour of his true vocal cords and that in order to be cured he had, had to have a total laryngectomy (surgical removal of the larynx (voice box)). This obviously removed his power of speech however surgery can provide a solution to this. He had, had what is known as a tracheo-oesophageal puncture performed and then a prosthetic valve placed in to allow him to regain a form of speech known as oesophageal speech.
Apparently his degree of speech is very good in comparison to the normal outcome for these patients and I must say that apart from the gravelly tone of his voice his speech was entirely normal. He has learnt to use the valve very well.
The principal of the operation, from my understanding, is that a patient who has had a complete laryngectomy needs to breathe permanently through their neck. A hole (fistula) is made between the trachea and the oesophagus and the voice prosthesis is inserted which does not allow food down the trachea but does allow air into the oesophagus.
Air in these patients enters and leaves through the valve in their neck but when the patient occludes the valve and prevents air escape by this pathway air enters the voice prosthesis and enter the oesophagus and escapes through the mouth. As the air passes through the upper tissues of the oesophagus it vibrates replacing the vibrations previously produced by the vocal cords.
This is what it looks like in the flesh:
Oesophageal speech, I’ve been told, is hard to master especially initially but there are clinics for these patients to go to where they can learn to speak well using these prostheses and the result is truly astonishing.
There are of course implications on this man’s life, he will never be considered in the same way and there will be a prejudice that comes from the sound of his voice. He said himself that children are scared of him now and he does resent that, but for him the ability to still communicate close to how he used to succeeds that and once people get to know him they understand and there is no judgement.
It amazes me everyday the things that modern medicine can achieve and this man and his surgery reminded me why I decided medicine was the career for me in the first place.
Just to show those of you who haven’t seen this – here is a patients story: