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Finding her voice after 23 years

April 09, 2015 | Heather Shannon
Kiana Davis, voice patient

Many people may find their own voice difficult to listen to. But Kiana Davis’s voice is music to her ears. That’s because until last November, the 23-year-old could barely make a sound.

“I recently got a new phone and had to set up my voice mail. I just kept listening to it over and over and thinking, ‘Wow. That’s me!’”

Born premature at 25 weeks and weighing 1 pound, 2 ounces, she underwent several surgeries while she was still “the size of a soda can.”

During a heart operation, the nerve that controls one of her vocal cords was damaged, leaving her with a voice that was just a whisper.  “When I was a baby, my mom had to stand right next to me because when I cried, you couldn’t hear me at all,” says Davis.

For years, Davis and her family were told that her voice was the result of scar tissue and nothing could be done to fix it. Davis was resigned to live with her voice just the way it was.

‘This isn’t me’

Then one day while visiting her dentist for a teeth cleaning, the receptionist told Davis about another patient who previously sounded just like her. The patient had gone to UCI Health otolaryngologist Dr. Sunil Verma for surgery.

“The receptionist said she sounds totally different now, and that you could finally hear her.”

The receptionist was also prepared with Verma’s contact information and handed it to Davis.

But Davis didn’t act immediately. For a year, she kept the information in her planner, taking it out to read it from time to time.

“I was scared. It was mostly just fear of just not being me. But then I realized that this isn’t me. This isn’t the voice I was supposed to have.”

‘He knew immediately’

When Davis met Verma, director of the UCI Health University Voice & Swallowing Center, and explained her history of surgeries as a preemie, she said he immediately understood what happened to her.

“You could just see everything click in his mind,” she says.

Verma examined Davis’s throat and vocal cords with a scope, which confirmed his suspicions: her left vocal cord was paralyzed – and it could be fixed with a permanent, triangle-shaped implant that pushes the paralyzed vocal cord to the middle of the voice box. This would enable Davis’s normal vocal cord to meet the paralyzed vocal cord when she spoke, creating sound.

Davis was stunned to learn that after nearly 23 years of thinking otherwise, her voice could be improved. After the surprise wore off, she scheduled the surgery.

“During the prepping, I was crying. I was so excited. I wasn’t scared. I was just so excited for more opportunities, for a better life,” says Davis.

Life after surgery

As eager as she was to begin speaking, Davis had to wait a couple weeks to let her vocal cords heal.

When it came time to speak, emotions ran high.

“It was so surreal. My mom was so happy and excited for me, too. She has wanted me to do this my whole life.”

Davis’s face lights up when she talks about Verma.

“Dr. Verma is amazing. Since I first met him, he just made me feel so safe and he knows exactly what he’s talking about. He changed my life.”

Davis had such a positive experience at UCI Health, she wants to become a pediatric nurse.

“I was so taken aback by all the kindness of the nurses and the faculty. I thought, ‘I want to do that. I want to change someone’s life and help them go through something.’”

For now, Davis is enjoying pondering all of the directions she can go.

“It’s a whole new world. My world is all turned around. I feel like I have so many opportunities, so many more open doors. I’m just really excited for the future.”

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