Teacher’s determination allows him to carry on as an educator despite severed vocal chords

By Victoria Slater, ’12

Cold and flus are as rampant as the wind and rain in early spring. Yet, for psychology teacher and girls’ basketball coach Chris Savage, a persistent sore throat lasting weeks hinted at something more serious than a common springtime virus.

“My voice last year was coming and going a lot. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what,” Savage said.

After visiting an Ear Nose and Throat specialist at Riverside Hospital, Savage’s concern proved true.

“I saw an ENT that took CAT scans and X-rays,” Savage said. “I saw a big white mass on the first CAT scan. After more CAT scans and MRIs, the doctors finally determined that it was a tumor.”

After further tests were conducted, Savage’s doctors discerned the exact location of the tumor: the vagus nerve. According to the Mayo Clinic, the vagus nerve controls various tongue movements, such as the ones involved in the ability to speak.

“The tumor had grown onto the vagus nerve, which … controls speaking and swallowing,” Savage said. “The tumor had grown to the point that it had killed the nerve completely. And it also had stretched out the nerves to my tongue and my left shoulder.”

Doctors determined that, with surgery, Savage’s prognosis was good. The tumor was benign, or noncancerous. However, since the vagus nerve had been compromised due to the tumor, Savage would have to adapt to restricted use of his vocal chords and tongue, among other limitations.

“When the doctor went in to get the tumor, they made an incision from my ear to below my chin,” Savage said. “Now I have limited use of my left shoulder and my tongue, and I still struggle with speaking and swallowing properly.”

Savage’s initial surgery left his voice hoarse and virtually impossible to hear, a problem that was marginally improved by a second procedure. Yet even six months after both operations, Savage is still adjusting to the repercussions of his severed vagus nerve.

“I wasn’t able to talk really for about a month after the first surgery. Then I had a second surgery, to put in a cortex implant into my vocal chords so people would be able to hear me,” Savage said. “I really think about what I say now. Should I talk now or just keep my mouth shut?”

Savage admits the surgery has had an impact on his professional life. Teaching and coaching require a steady, audible voice. A passion for education, support from both the faculty and student body and the purchase of microphones to amplify his voice have aided Savage’s adaptation to teaching without a voice.

“I really love teaching and coaching. It was never a question whether or not I teach,” Savage said. “I love it and I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

Senior Emily Prebihalo, who has enjoyed IB Psychology with Savage for over a year, was glad to see his return to the classroom.said that students should look to Savage as a source of inspiration.

“I think Mr. Savage’s situation shows us that we really can do anything,” she said. “He’s really inspiring students by persevering in the face of adversity and teaching us that it is possible to do what we love no matter what.”

As a result of this life-changing experience, Savage remains humbled and thankful each day for his health. What little voice he has to left to use, he cherishes. What others take for granted, Savage greatly appreciates.

“I really value my family and my life a lot more,” he said. “ I realize I may have taken the ability to talk and be heard for granted. So now I value speaking much more than I ever had before.”