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Voice box transplant successful for California woman

January 20, 2011|By Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times
  • Surgeons perform a rare larynx transplant at UC, Davis, Medical Center.
Surgeons perform a rare larynx transplant at UC, Davis, Medical Center. (UC, Davis, Medical Center )

A voice box transplant has restored the speech of a 52-year-old Modesto woman 11 years after she lost her ability to speak and breathe on her own, surgeons from UC Davis reported Thursday. The 18-hour operation in October was only the second time that such a transplant has been undertaken worldwide.

"This operation restored my life," Brenda Charette Jensen said in a news release issued by the medical center.

Jensen lost her voice and ability to breathe normally due to complications from another surgery. After that surgery, she used a handheld electronic device that produces an artificial voice to speak and had a tracheotomy inserted to breathe.

During the October transplant, which was two years in the planning, surgeons replaced the larynx -- or voice box -- along with the thyroid gland and trachea. More than two dozen health professionals of diverse specialties participated in the operation, which took place over two days. The organ donor was an accident victim. Jensen found, however, that her voice is that of her own, not the donor's voice. She has regained her ability to taste and smell, is learning how to swallow and hopes to be able to eat soon. She still has a tracheotomy tube but doctors plan to remove it later this year.

"I'll probably never sing in a choir or anything, but it's exciting to talk normally," she said. "And I can't wait to eat and drink and swim again."

A transplant is not a standard option for people with a missing or nonfunctioning larynx because it is a complicated and experimental procedure and because the condition is not life-threatening. In addition, the transplant recipient has to take immunosuppressant medications, which can be dangerous, for the rest of his or her life. Jensen was already taking immunosuppressant medications, however, because of a kidney-pancreas transplant in 2006. However, UC Davis doctors said they learned a great deal about the procedure from this experience and hope that future research using stem cells will lead to other options to repair injuries to the voice box and throat.

The first larynx transplant took place in 1998 at the Cleveland Clinic.

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