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Updated December 26th, 2023 at 14:57 IST

‘I love you, Mom’: Surgeons help a young girl find her voice

Delayza Diaz didn’t use her voice for the first time until she was 9 years old.

Diaz finds her voice
Delayza Diaz didn’t use her voice for the first time until she was 9 years old. | Image:X
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Delayza Diaz didn’t use her voice for the first time until she was 9 years old. For most of her life, she communicated by vibrating the inner lining of her cheeks to form words, a process called buccal speech. Her mom, Lucero Diaz, called it her squeaky voice.

“You had to pay really, really close attention to her to see what she was saying,” said Diaz, 34, who lived with her daughter in Salem, Oregon. Only family members could understand Delayza well. “She had a tablet that spoke for her, but she didn’t like to use it because she said that she had her own voice that she could use,” Diaz said.

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What was Delayza's rare condition?

Delayza had a rare condition causing a collection of birth defects affecting the spine, upper airway, and esophagus, occurring in 1 infant for every 10,000 to 40,000 births. Like many with the condition, she had an abnormal connection, or fistula, between her airway and esophagus.

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Dr. Derek Lam, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Oregon Health and Sciences University, Delayza’s doctor for a decade, explained she was born with no opening through the voice box and upper windpipe, with hard cartilage blocking the windpipe opening. Operating on her second day of life, Lam stabilized her airway, a critical step as most infants with this condition don't survive. Delayza, unstable initially, faced daily heart and lung failures, requiring revival. After fixing the abnormal connection, she finally went home at 5 months.

Though she could breathe with a throat tube, the cartilage prevented vocal cord vibration for speech. Lam, determined to offer a better option, explored esophageal speech used by those who lose voice boxes to cancer. Despite the lack of experts in teaching it to children, Lam pursued this noninvasive option to give Delayza a voice.

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A young girl finds her voice

  • They opted for a rare and complex surgery to reconstruct Delayza’s voice box, despite the associated risks.
  • The vocal cords, essential for protecting airways during swallowing, posed potential complications if the surgery did not go smoothly, risking compromise to her airway and potential infections from food or liquid entering her lungs.
  • Discussions with Delayza’s family spanned several years to determine the right decision and timing for the surgery. While initially aiming for completion before Delayza began school, her positive progress led them to postpone the operation.
  • Delayza faced challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic when her classes shifted online, leading to struggles and a decline in interest in school.
  • The surgery, performed in the fall of 2022, aimed to improve Delayza’s quality of life. It involved removing abnormal cartilage, creating a hole between vocal cords, utilizing rib cartilage for a larger voice box, and inserting a stent to maintain openness during healing.
  • One of Delayza’s vocal cords began functioning post-surgery, enabling her to learn to speak normally for the first time.
  • Working with voice therapists for months before being heard again by Dr. Lam, Delayza's ability to articulate marked a significant and exciting milestone.
  • Despite the raw and low tone of her new voice, it showcased a notable improvement and increased intelligibility compared to her previous mode of communication.
  • Delayza’s newfound ability to communicate may lead to the removal of the tracheostomy tube that aids her breathing, offering further enhancements to her daily life.
  • Dr. Lam remains optimistic that this transformative surgery will open doors and opportunities for Delayza, positively impacting her future.
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Published December 26th, 2023 at 14:57 IST

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