Voice and swallow

A singer's story: Kitt Reuter-Foss

Nobody knew it, but in 1999, Kitt Reuter-Foss was certain her singing career was over.

The Madison-based opera singer had known something was not right with her internationally renowned voice for many years: Her vocal range was off by at least an octave, and her mezzo-soprano voice was making unhealthy sounds when she tried to practice, teach or perform.

She was taking medicine to control the allergies she thought were causing her problems, but the feeling remained. In 1997, she began experiencing acid reflux, further irritating her vocal cords.

"I was thinking, 'I have to hang this up,' " Reuter-Foss said. "But it's taboo to talk about these issues in the circles in which I run. The assumption is that you've done this to yourself through bad technique. You can't walk up to a conductor and say, 'Something's wrong with my voice.' "

Fortunately for Reuter-Foss - and her legions of fans - she was able to discuss her problem with the doctors and voice specialists at UW Hospital and Clinics' voice and voice disorder research program.

In a very real sense, a team led by Diane Bless, PhD, and Charles Ford, MD, then-chairman of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health's Division of Otolaryngology Head & Neck Surgery, prevented one of Madison's most distinctive voices from falling silent forever.

They began with a complete evaluation.

"In situations like Kitt's, you need to address the underlying problems, the behavioral things the patient is doing that are causing the problems," said Ford, who retired in 2018.

In Reuter-Foss's case, that meant several things, including her diet (spicy foods, eaten late at night) and choice of exercise (running), both leading to acid reflux.

But the root of Reuter-Foss's problem proved to be a pseudocyst that damaged the tissues on her vocal cords. In her attempts to sing around the problem, she also had developed nodules on her vocal cords. In 1999, Ford removed the cyst surgically, allowing her vocal tissues to heal. Then a team of speech pathologists led by Bless began teaching Reuter-Foss new ways to care for her voice.

"They gave me clear-cut answers," Reuter-Foss said. "I had complete trust in them, and it was fun to be able to talk vocal shop with a doctor."