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Instrument By Joan Voight • Illustration by Traci Daberko • Photography by Ann Johansson
When words fail, a unique and highly specialized center at
UCLA is there to help patients ﬁnd their voice.
W hen Erik Laurence transferred to Shanghai,
China, in 2009, as vice president of a software
company, he thought his biggest challenge would
be improving his Mandarin-language skills and learning
the nuances of the Chinese business scene. But his vocal
cords, not the foreign nation, turned out to be his undoing.
Laurence, who was in his mid-40s at the time,
had struggled for about 20 years with a mild case of
spasmodic dysphonia (SD), intermittently losing his voice
at odd times. SD is a neurological disorder that involves
spasms of the vocal cords, which causes the voice to break
up or have a strained or strangled quality. “Building a
career in marketing involved winning over new people,
conference presentations and constant talking,” he
18 U MAGAZINE
says. “My job had evolved to where I spent entire days
on conference calls — with a voice I couldn’t count on to
work.” He says the feeling of SD is “like you are running
along and suddenly you trip, and you didn’t see it coming.
Your voice is fine, then suddenly it stops working in the
middle of a sentence.”
Speaking was even more difficult when he played
sports and his heart rate went up. “It was like my brain
was over-firing, causing the signals to the nerves to be
too strong and making my vocal cords slam together, not
allowing them to vibrate,” Laurence remembers. “At social
events, I wouldn’t speak much, even though I had lots to
say. Sometimes I’d get a sense of what words would work
out for me, so I would say only what I could say.”