Paralyzed Vocal Cord Keeps Anchor off the Air


Vanessa Flowers sounds hoarse.

Like she spent too much time yelling for her beloved Crimson Tide at an Alabama football game.

Or she’s in the midst of a really bad cold.

Regardless, she couldn’t be more pleased with a raspy voice.

She’s just happy to be heard.

“This right here is actually kind of a miracle with what the doctors have been able to do,” she said in a conference room at KOLN/KGIN-TV studios in north Lincoln.

Because three weeks ago -- before a specialist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center injected a gel into her vocal fold -- her voice was nothing more than a whisper.

That’s not a good thing when your livelihood depends on your voice.

Flowers, 37, is the noon and 5 p.m. anchor at KOLN, the Lincoln CBS affiliate, and she’s been off the air -- save for giving it the old college try one day in March -- since Jan. 16.

“I was going on the 5 o’clock news, and my voice … I didn’t feel bad,” she remembered. “There was nothing leading up to to it. There were no signs or symptoms. I wasn’t coughing or sneezing -- no signs of any problems.

“But about five minutes before we hit the air, I started practicing a little and wondered ‘What’s going on?’”

The weather guys, she said, had a bet as to whether or not she would make it through the newscast.

“I was, like, I’m going to get this,” she recalled. “Sure enough, by the end of the newscast my voice was gone, and the next day you couldn’t understand a word I said. I couldn’t talk at all.”

Vowels gave her the most difficulty, especially the letter “e.”

“People had a hard time understanding me,” she said. “One of the most frustrating parts was not being able to go through a drive-through, like a Wendy’s and not having them understand me,” she said. “Or going to Walgreens and picking something up and the clerk going ‘What …what?’”

She went to Urgent Care and received a prescription. It didn’t work.

She then made an appointment with another doctor, who recommended vocal rest. She tried to come back March 4. It didn’t go well.

“That was so embarrassing,” she said. “I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t read. I felt so bad for the viewers who couldn’t understand me. Poor (meteorologist) Brandon (Rector) … I remember I hit him on the arm, and he picked up where I left off.”

Flowers took a two-month medical leave and returned to her Alabama home state. Her mother made an appointment for her with a specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham hospital, where her mother works.

The diagnosis: Her right vocal cord was paralyzed.

“It’s as dead as a doornail now,” she said. “He was 99 percent sure it was viral.”

As is Dr. Barbara Heywood, one of two UNMC doctors now treating Flowers, back in Nebraska.

Here’s the scary part: “We don’t know if it’s coming back or not,” Heywood said.

Flowers’ condition is not unusual.

“People get paralysis (in vocal cords) for a lot of reasons,” Heywood said. “Trauma, a neck injury, surgery, tumors … but when you don’t have anything else wrong like Vanessa, we usually think it’s a virus.”

The paralysis has led to Flowers’ inability to project her voice.

“We were doing yardwork the other day, and I wanted to yell (at my boyfriend) to tell him to get the cat inside, and I just couldn’t do it,” she said.

Flowers also has trouble swallowing and tires easily.

“It takes everything I have to communicate, to get it out,” she said. “This is a demanding business. It moves really fast, especially if there’s breaking news. You have to put your all into it.”

On May 16, Heywood’s colleague Dr. Samuel Pate, injected a RADIESSE Voice Gel into Flowers’ vocal fold to stimulate healing of the vocal cord.

“We hope function will return,” Heywood said.

KOLN moved Flowers into producing and reporting roles, rotating anchors at noon and 5 in her place, with hopes that Flowers can return.

“My heart goes out to her,” said Susan Ramsett, KOLN vice president and news director. “I understand that losing her voice has been both scary and frustrating for Vanessa, as it would be for any anchor. I admire her courage and appreciate her willingness to assist behind the scenes, including producing, writing and reporting.”

What’s been amazing, Ramsett said, has been viewers’ response, which turned from curiosity to concern. It’s overwhelmed Flowers.

“It’s given me a source of strength to get through this,” she said.

Her goal is to get through it. She’ll return to UNMC in August to assess her progress. She admits she’s scared and not sure of what the future will bring.

“I don’t want to think about (not doing this) because I’m such a positive person,” she said. “I try so hard to be positive.”

 Lincoln Journal Star