Several years ago, Hugo Vera, a professional opera singer and Kansas University alumnus, sensed something was wrong with his voice. He visited his doctor, Lee Reussner, a head and neck surgeon who specializes in voice and throat issues, and got some bad news.
Reussner discovered one of the vocal cords was vibrating faster than the other, Vera said — a potentially career-ending impairment. He was told to start canceling his performances if he wanted to fix it.
"I was very, very scared," Vera said, but, ultimately, his career did not end. The care Reussner was able to provide had Vera's voice booming again soon enough.
Vera, who first saw Reussner as a KU graduate student in 2000, now lives in New York City, where he works for the Metropolitan Opera and as an adjunct professor at New York University. He has performed from Texas to Maine and even in Europe, but Reussner remains his doctor of choice.
Reussner is the director of the Kansas Voice Center, where he and Jennifer Cannady, a speech and language pathologist, treat a number of people for voice issues, including professional singers of all genres, opera being the most common.
"Certainly, opera singers are not the majority of what we do," Reussner said. "But we do have a fair number of singers."
It might come as a surprise for a doctor in America's heartland to attract a clientele like opera singers, with that industry more famously associated with cities like New York and San Francisco. But singers travel so often they can live just about anywhere, giving Reussner and Cannady a fair share of regulars and one-timers.
Many are former KU graduates still living in Kansas. A few come from nearby states like Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa. There are some who will get on a flight to Lawrence just for an appointment. And then there is the occasional emergency call from a touring company.
Reussner and Cannady work as a team. Cannady usually sees patients first and runs them through various vocal exercises and makes a video of their vocal cords in action by using a "scoping" device that stares down the throat. Reussner then administers a head and neck exam. The two will then decide if a treatment calls for surgery or medicine, given by Reussner, or behavioral modifications, recommended by Cannady.
"I always feel like a voice problem is putting a puzzle together because usually it's not one factor," Cannady said.
Singers of all sorts will come in with concerns or simply for a check-up. Reussner and Cannady see about one per week, but sometimes it can be a daily occurence.
Opera singers tend to be the most knowledgeable and better attuned to their vocal health than other types of singers, Reussner and Cannady said. That usually leads to good news when all is said and done.
"They tend to catch things pretty early and unlike some patients who wait until they have a big cancer growing, opera singers do not and would not," Reussner said. "This is their career. If something's wrong, it's a big deal."
And despite how big of a deal it is, Reussner and Cannady said there is little headbutting between them and their patients, none of those "Coach, I can still play!" moments. It's not common for patients to insist they're fine or disagree over treatment plans.
But there is something of a language barrier the doctors need to bridge. The two doctors said patients tend to describe their ailment from an artistic perspective and it can take some effort to translate it into scientific terms.
But after years on the job, they've gotten familiar with their patients' vocabulary.
"Oh, my chest voice and my head voice and my tessitura's been affected," Reussner said, mimicking a patient's viewpoint. Tessitura refers to the general range of a melody or voice part.
"I can't float my high voice," Cannady continued.
"Yes!" Reussner said with a smile, nodding and pointing at Cannady affirmatively. "I can't float my high voice."
Both doctors are something of singers themselves, which helps them understand where a singing-patient is coming from. Reussner participates in church choir, while Cannady is active in community theater and holiday caroling. Both are lifelong fans of music and said it's just one of the perks of their job.
But it must also be nice helping people get by in a small, competitive industry.
"Lee is a big asset to Kansas, because there aren't many [head and neck doctors] in that area that specialize in singers," Vera said. "As someone who uses his voice to make my career, I need someone that I can truly trust and I obviously trust him a lot."