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Mormon singer overcomes vocal cord paralysis

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Andrea Densley, a talented singer, fashion designer and mother of six, was told that she would never sing again. After thyroid cancer, nerve grafts and thousands of prayers, she has overcome vocal cord paralysis.

For as long as Densley can remember, music has played an important role in her life and those close to her. It even united her grandparents after they met performing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during the 1920s.

"Music has been a normal part of my life since childhood," said Densley, a member of the Shelton 2nd Ward, Elma Washington Stake.

"I have always had a driving desire to perform in music and theater and to learn as much as I can to improve."

The chain of surgeries

At 19, she was diagnosed with a rare endocrine problem and underwent parathyroid surgery. She was informed that her nodules appeared suspicious, but no cancer was detected.

Over the next few years, both her mother and brother were diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which motivated her to remove her own thyroid.

"Because my earlier parathyroid surgery had been so uncomplicated I anticipated all would be fine with the thyroid operation," she said.

During the surgery, a small spot of cancerous tissue was found and removed. She considered the surgery a success. Yet, two weeks later, she still struggled to speak above a whisper and could quietly sing only five notes.

"Now, I was unable to hum, which surprised me," she said. "I also was unable to drink water without choking and inhaling it. Still, it didn't occur to me that anything was amiss. I thought if I resumed my vocal exercising daily it would help get things back to normal."

Weeks later, she visited her ear, nose and throat doctor to receive approval to resume performing.

"She put a scope down my throat and had me speak and try to sing," she said. "I smiled after her exam and asked if I could begin singing again. With a brisk and bland voice she said, 'You will never sing again, and if you want to speak with modulation in your voice you will need speech therapy.' Shocked, I asked her to clarify what I thought I had heard. She repeated it, and said yes, she literally meant 'never.' She said my left vocal nerve had somehow been damaged and my left vocal cord was paralyzed. The nerve would never grow back or heal itself. My left vocal cord was sagging just off the mid-point of my voice box, and it takes two taut vocal cords vibrating together to make music and speech."

The bad news continued.

During a follow-up examination, her doctor noticed a new nodule. He was concerned and recommended additional tests.

Although Densley no longer had a thyroid, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer on her remaining functioning vocal cord.

She reviewed the options and decided to undergo surgery, risking paralysis of her only working vocal cord. If the right vocal cord was harmed, she would require a permanent tracheotomy to breathe properly. But, if the surgery, known as reinnervation, went as planned, the doctor would graft a healthy nerve from her collarbone next to the damaged vocal nerve. The healthy nerve would grow, promoting strength and support to the cords and muscles.

Spiritual struggle

"After surgery, I began to understand the phrase 'hungering for the scriptures.' I searched and read, being comforted daily by new insights found," she said. "I knew positively that I could be healed; however, I didn't know if that was Heavenly Father's plan."

She recalls the painful grief involved and sometimes felt unable to remain positive.

"Instead of giving up with the help of doctors, she sought out methods to solve the problem," said Densley's mother, Nell Morgan. "This included many priesthood blessings and much prayer. We were not certain if she would sing again, but knowing her tenacity, I knew if there was help, she would find it."

During the Christmas season, she experienced extreme grief at not being able to sing the accompanying carols.

"One night as I prayed, I was weeping, despairing, feeling hopeless about the soundless years ahead," she said.

The next morning, her brother, a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, called to share an uplifting experience that he'd had.

Before each rehearsal, he explained that the choir has a brief devotional. He felt inspired to write his sister's name on the prayer list. Surprisingly, from hundreds of other choir members, he was asked to give the devotional prayer that morning.

"From then on, when despair washed over me, I visualized all those faces of the Tabernacle Choir, singers, who in that one moment united their faith in my behalf, she said."

Returning to the stage

Almost a year and a half after surgery, Densley attended her sons' performance in the high school jazz band. She found herself humming along to the familiar music and realized that she was hitting the notes.

After the performance, she asked the band director if she could sing with the band at the next concert and he, familiar with her struggle, excitedly agreed. Quickly after she began to wonder if she had made a mistake. However, she turned to the Lord, constantly practicing and fervently praying

On the night of the event, she decided to "sing to the Lord and just be brave." After singing beautifully, she received a standing ovation from her supportive community.

Over the next few months, she continued to increase her singing ranges. After a standard test involving a long and painful needle being placed in her throat, she woke up the next morning and was miraculously able to speak clearer.

"The doctor said he had no explanation for what happened to me," she said. "Tests show even today that the cord is still paralyzed."

Today, she continues to perform as the vocalist in a 19-piece dance band called Swing Fever of Washington. They perform at various fundraisers and donate all the ticket sales to nonprofit groups.

Since reinnervation, she has been able to once again "sing every song in my repertoire. "I can sing with creativity and style and feel much, much more gratitude at the miracle of merely opening my mouth and having sound come out," she said.

Promoting modest fashions

Densley graduated from BYU with a fashion design degree.

Before her thyroid surgeries, she worked as a substitute teacher, newspaper reporter and substitute librarian. But, unemployed after the surgery, she realized that even a fast food restaurant position required talking to customers.

She turned to an alternative passion: fashion design, a trade that could be mastered without an audible speaking voice.

After Simplicity Patterns' positive response to her designs, a handful of them were published and sold worldwide. Her freelance designing lasted more than three years and emphasized modest formal dress patterns.

"I felt passionate about the lack of choices for young women in shopping for modest dresses," she said. "It was difficult to even find modest patterns to sew formal dresses. I still retain the feelings of being a teenager who loves fashion but is frustrated by the lack of clothing that supports my values."

Eventually, Simplicity Patterns was forced to eliminate most freelance work, but Densley connected with the director of Enterprise for Equity, a program that assists low-income entrepreneurs. She completed the six-week business course, culminating with a detailed business plan to produce fashionable, yet modest clothing. Her website is www.legacydesignstudiousa.com.