Can you explain properly what happened to Julie Andrews’ voice? Other people seem to recover from a vocal cord injury. Or, is there another situation going on?
Before I attempt to answer your question, a few caveats.
First, some details of Julie Andrews’ vocal issues relating to her surgery are simply not a part of the public domain. So, aspects of my response are inferences based upon my knowledge of similar situations.
Second, I am a vocal coach. Though informed on physiological matters, I am not a surgeon and therefore at times will be relying on insight I have gained from my specialist colleagues.
Having said this, your question is important because it has implications for all singers who may be considering surgery for their voices.
So, be sure to read the three recommendations at the end of this article.
Surgery Gone Wrong
In 1997 Julie Andrews had what should have been relatively safe and minor surgery to remove nodules on her vocal folds.
The vocal folds are a bit like onions and made up of several layers.
In a healthy vocal fold the most superficial layer is quite loose, so that the epithelium or outer layer of the fold can vibrate in a wave-like fashion over the underlying layers.
A good mucosal wave is necessary for the folds to open in a uniform, symmetrical fashion.
Anything that interferes with the mucosal wave causes a worsening in voice quality.
In severe cases, such as what happened to the fabulous Julie Andrews, the external layers of the folds can be accidentally scraped off during an operation.
Understanding What Happened
To put it simply, the folds became like two pieces of wood that cannot vibrate in the wind, rather than pieces of silk.
It is almost impossible to restore elasticity to the fold after this kind of damage, although I believe scientists have tried to grow tissue in a laboratory for Ms. Andrews.
There are also various substances that can be injected into the fold in order to allow them to vibrate and behave like a healthy fold.
The challenge is that these implants have to be pliable enough to vibrate hundreds of times a second.
The moral of the story is never allow an ENT doctor to do things to your vocal folds if they are not specialist laryngologists used to working with singers.
It is also worth mentioning that the area around the vocal process may become irritated from the breathing tube routinely placed through the vocal folds during general anesthesia.
Therefore, should you ever have any kind of operation, it is worth telling the anesthetist that you are a professional voice user, so that he is especially careful when inserting the tube, avoiding scraping past your true vocal folds.
Recommendations for Any Singer Considering Surgery
I have discussed Julie Andrews’ case with an ENT colleague and we have come up with three recommendations for all singers:
1) If you are not significantly impaired in your singing, avoid surgery. Consult with informed specialists and examine several non-surgical vocal strategies.
2) Rework your technique with a good voice teacher/vocal coach. Since technical issues are what caused the nodules in the first place, merely removing them without changing the technique will allow them to recur.
3) Get at least two opinions (preferably more) before any vocal fold surgery.