Surgeon repairs voices of children and superstars

Dr. Steven Zeitels of Massachusetts General Hospital restored the voice of Noah Skole by destroying the lesions in his vocal cords.
CBS News

(CBS News) BOSTON -- You may not think of your voice that often, because for most of us it's always there. But if it's lost, silence can seal you off from the world. One innovative surgeon has repaired the voices of children and superstars, and all of them are singing his praises.

"I lost my voice when I was four years old," a nine-year-old Noah Skole says with a raspy voice in a video made four years ago.

Noah was born with a healthy voice, but a virus caused tiny lesions to grow in his vocal cords. His mother Laurie was devastated.

"I wanted a miracle," she says. "I wanted a cure. I wanted to find somebody to help me. For him. And that's what brought me to Dr. Zeitels."

Dr. Steven Zeitels of Massachusetts General Hospital is inventing new techniques in the emerging field of vocal cord treatment.

"I work with mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, tissue engineers," he says. "And we use high-speed photography -- cameras that can take in, even in the throat, 5,000 frames a second. As the electronics and the imaging improve, so does our understanding of that physiology."

Asked what he has learned about the value of having a normal, healthy voice, Zeitels says, "One of the most striking things is how people take it for granted. What if it wasn't there?"

Zeitels has helped icons Steven Tyler and Adele. Last year, Adele suffered a vocal cord hemorrhage, but with help from Zeitels, she was able to return to the stage.

Roger Daltrey of the Who lost his voice before his 2010 Super Bowl performance. "The way he's got my voice working right now -- I feel it's easier for me to sing than it was 25 years ago," says Daltrey.

Over four years, Zeitels destroyed Noah Skole's lesions. He injected them with a cancer drug and zapped them with a laser. At his bar mitzvah in September, Noah was able to speak clearly.

"When I restore the voice of a competent adult professional, no matter what they do, what you're doing is restoring their lives," Zeitels says. "Here, it's creating the future of something that should have happened, but might not have happened, and now will happen."

For Noah, this means a future with a voice that can finally be heard.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook