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Electrolarynx gives a voice to ICU patients

Like many patients who end up in the hospital, Jason Fonger’s life changed in an instant. He experienced a fall off his back porch roof, rupturing a number of discs in his spine. Jason has been cared for in Sunnybrook’s intensive care unit (ICU) for some time.

Ventilators are often needed for ICU patients like Jason to help them breathe. The downside is the tube that rests in the throat makes talking impossible. Imagine yourself in that situation for a moment: you are seriously injured, living in a hospital ward away from home and family, and unable to articulate your feelings and needs. Jason says it was beyond frustrating.

“Using [the electrolarynx], it was a brave new world.” – Jason Fonger, ICU patient at Sunnybrook

Until now, lip reading and having the patient write their needs down on paper have been the best methods of communication. But if you’ve ever tried lip reading, you’ll know how hard it is to do well. And for ICU patients who often have severe injuries, even taking pen to paper can be an impossible task.

That’s why Sunnybrook researchers are testing an old device — called an electrolarynx — in a new way. The electrolarynx looks like a small microphone that when held up to the throat, generates vibrations that can be interpreted as voice. It’s long been used to help cancer patients speak after they’ve had their voice boxes removed. This new study will examine if it can help critically ill ventilated patients speak.

Patients are given several training sessions with the device, but Jason was able to talk to his wife over the phone after just one lesson. “I don’t know if it took to me, or I took to it, but it worked,” he says. “Using it, it was a brave new world.”

Dr. Louise Rose is leading the research, and says so far they have had success with every patient in generating some level of intelligible speech. “It’s so much easier to use the device, and now I can understand what patients are saying either within the first or second attempt, of whatever they are trying to tell us” she says with a smile. Across Canada, thousands of ICU patients could benefit from this every year.

That makes the electrolarynx not only a potentially powerful communication tool, but hopefully a good way to reduce frustration. In an environment where things are already difficult for so many reasons, that’s something to talk about.

About the author

Monica Matys

Monica Matys

Monica Matys is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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