California Woman Has Successful Larynx Transplant


Brenda Charett Jensen damaged her vocal cords more than a decade ago after she repeatedly pulled out her breathing tube while under sedation in the hospital. Last October, the 52-year-old became only the second person in the world to undergo a successfully larynx transplant using an international team of doctors from the University of California, Davis Medical Center and experts from England and Sweden.

The larynx, often called just “the voice box”, is the 2-inch-long, tube shaped organ containing the vocal cords which produce sound. It is located in the respiratory tract between the pharynx and the trachea.

At first glance, it may seem that loss of the larynx would only affect sound production. But the larynx is an immunologically active organ involved in complex processes. Loss of the larynx through laryngectomy affects coughing, laughing, and even kissing. In addition, loss of this vital part of the upper respiratory tract can affect both smell and taste.

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Laryngeal transplantation is an option for patients with irreversible disease or damage to the larynx, such as that which occurs from trauma or cancer. However, much of the research has been done in animals and cadavers, with only two successful transplants occurring in humans. Also, the surgery is still considered experimental and is not covered by either private or governmental insurance.

The first patient to receive a successful larynx transplant was Timothy Heidler, who had surgery in 1998 at the Cleveland Clinic. Mr. Heidler lost his voice box due to trauma from a motorcycle accident.

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Ms. Jensen’s operation lasted 18 hours over the course of two days. Doctors replaced her voice box, windpipe and thyroid gland with that of a donor who died in an accident. Before the transplant, Brenda talked with the help of a handheld device that sounds like an electronic voice but just two weeks after the surgery she was able to say short sentences in a hoarse tone.

Jensen has since improved in her speech, according to her doctors, but she still requires a tracheotomy tube and is relearning how to swallow. Also, as with other transplant patients, Ms. Jensen will need to take anti-rejection drugs the rest of her life.