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For two years, this young mom could not speak

IU Health North Hospital

For two years, this young mom could not speak

Her 2-year-old was just a baby when Maranda Slusser stopped talking. Two more children were born into that quiet space – never hearing their mom sing to them, read to them or comfort them – until now.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

“I love you.”

When Maranda Slusser uttered those three little words into the phone from her hospital room, the babies on the other end of the line didn’t know what to think.

It had been nearly two years since their mom had spoken, her voice trapped by a tracheostomy tube that kept her airway open so she could breathe but didn’t allow for any sound.

Her oldest, Iris, is 4. She is the only one who likely even remembers her mom’s voice. Her 2-year-old brother was just a baby when his mom stopped speaking. The other two, ages 1 and 5 months, were born into that quiet space – never hearing their mom sing to them, read to them or comfort them.

Until last August. That’s when Maranda, 22, got her voice – and her life – back, thanks to the skill of the IU Health Voice Center and Dr. Noah Parker.

The IU Health laryngologist, or throat specialist, specializes in voice, airway and swallowing disorders, and when the young mother came to him for help, he was struck by her situation.

“She had a trach tube in place, basically a permanent trach tube and she couldn’t talk,” he said. “The anatomy is such that she could breathe in and out through the trach, but if you put your finger over her trach tube to allow her to breathe out of her voice box, no air could move through so she could not create any sound.”

Imagine for a moment what that must have been like. No laughter, no singing, no yelling. Just puffs of air – sometimes in anger, sometimes in despair.

“I did a lot of huffing and puffing,” she said.

That’s the life the young woman was living in a tiny apartment north of Fort Wayne with her longtime boyfriend, their four kids, three cats and a dog.

A DESPERATE CRY

It all started with a suicide attempt. Maranda is upfront about that and urges others who are under stress to seek help.

“I was in a very bad mental state a few years ago,” she said as she rested on the sofa while 4-year-old Iris studied flashcards and her youngest slept in a baby seat on the floor. The other two kids napped in another room.

“I thought my life was over at 20.”

Her life was saved at a northern Indiana hospital, but complications from intubation to help her breathe left her airway constricted. The trach, originally designed to be a short-term fix, ended up becoming part of her for the next two years, even as she became pregnant and delivered her two youngest children.

While she was comatose in the hospital, her fiancé, Donovan Slusser, whispered in her ear that if she would only wake up they would finally have the wedding she had waited for since she became pregnant with their first child.

She doesn’t remember that, of course, but Donovan made good on that promise, and the two were married in their kitchen on a cold, rainy October day with their children and extended family as witnesses.

That was the day she uttered two more words she had longed to say out loud – “I do.”

FINDING HER VOICE

A tiny scar in her neck is the only visible sign of the delicate surgery Dr. Parker performed in August to rebuild Maranda’s airway.

Called a tracheal resection and reconstruction, the procedure is one he has been doing for years, though only for the past year at IU Health since the IU Health Voice Center was established at IU Health North Hospital. Patients also are seen at the IU Health Neuroscience Center in Downtown Indianapolis.

“This was a fixable thing,” he said of her condition. “People just need to get to someone who’s comfortable managing it.”

And Maranda felt confident that this doctor could help her.

When she met him for the first time, she used her phone to text questions. She was nervous.

“But after talking with him, he was really confident, and the confidence he had helped me because I was scared. I thought it might not work. I had so many emotions, wondering if I was going to be able to talk to my kids.”

Up to that point, she had begun to envision a life without speaking.

“I was hopeless and felt lost without being able to talk. I honestly thought it was going to be forever.”

After the four-hour surgery and while still in the operating room, Maranda spoke her first words, though she doesn’t remember that moment.

“I can tell you the first words she spoke,” Dr. Parker said. “We just had her count to five.”

That’s the test he gives his patients even while they are still groggy from the anesthesia.

“I’m always a bit on edge because I want to be sure they’re breathing well once that tube comes out, and I like to hear their voice,” he said. “She counted to five. I remember it because our staff got emotional. We had been talking about how she hadn’t spoken in years and how she hadn’t talked to her kids. It’s a moment I think all of us will remember.”

Later that day, Maranda would be on the phone with her kids and with Donovan, as her mother stayed by her side in the hospital.

“It was very emotional for me to be able to tell my kids I loved them, to use the actual words,” she said. “My oldest was like, ‘Wow, you can talk.’ My second oldest just kept laughing.”

Meanwhile, she kept crying. Years of silence gave way to all the words she’d wanted to say but could only mouth or text to those she loved. She never learned any sign language.

Maranda remained in the hospital for a week, standard for Dr. Parker’s patients.

“I want to make sure everything looks perfect before they leave,” he said. “The risk is that the wound could not heal well and the reconstruction could start to pull apart. I always take them back to the operating room on the seventh day to look with a scope and make sure it all looks good, then I send them home later that day.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Maranda and Donovan can laugh now that this trying time is behind them. Both acknowledge it was a strain on their relationship.

“For those two years, it was really hard for him and I to connect on any level,” Maranda said. “We were fighting, but not fighting out loud. It was mostly texts.”

Now each is able to get a better sense of how the other is feeling.

As she talks, Donovan is balancing their 2-year-old on his lap. When she asks him a question, it takes him a moment to hear her and respond.

“It took a lot of mental strain,” he acknowledged. “I had to constantly remind myself that I could sit here and mouth off all I want and she can’t. It was difficult at first.”

But as the months went on, something else happened. He began to understand her better.

“After her being silent so long, now I can just look at her face and know exactly how she’s feeling. It was really tough, but it helped us.”

Today, Maranda said the kids are still getting used to her voice. They are more apt to listen to their dad, she said.

Except maybe Iris.

“I think she understands better. She has been the one to read me better.”

Through all the pain, all the silence, all the fear, Maranda said she found her strength in her children.

“It sounds cheesy, but I think my kids saved me. They’ve ultimately made my life better. I’m happier.”

She still has days when she feels blue and says it has taken her months to get back on track, but she is in a much better place now. Her world is filled with music, singing and laughter. And yes, even the occasional argument or scolding.

“My kids have given me purpose … to be patient for the good things to come,” she said. “I missed out on so much for two years.”

Learn more about the IU Health Voice Center here.

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org

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