October 30, 2013 10:27 am

Getting his voice back: Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and the surgery that saved his voice

VIDEO: Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy talks abut the surgery that saved his voice. Carey Marsden reports.

TORONTO — He has that smooth, distinct voice that’s familiar to most Canadians. But about six years ago, Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy had trouble hitting the high notes. He was losing his falsetto.

Cuddy was diagnosed with a vocal polyp — a benign, generally harmless lesion described by his doctor as a blood blister weighing down his vocal chords. That small mass was just heavy enough to slowly alter his voice, though.

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“I just thought, ‘if this is it, then this is it.’ I just made a little recording before I went into the doctor,” he told Global News.

“But my voice had gotten to a bad point, I had no falsetto. Even the low stuff was difficult.”

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Ultimately, Cuddy had to go under the knife to treat his most precious instrument. His doctor referred him to Canadian doctor Jennifer Anderson, a world leader in this precise surgery. Cuddy was promised he was in good hands.

What happened to Cuddy isn’t unconventional. It happens most often to people who rely heavily on their voices — singers, actors, teachers, swim instructors, for example. A polyp could even develop after a bad cough or a bout of bronchitis, according to Anderson.

She is the chief of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery and director of the voice clinic at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

In some cases, Anderson can treat her patients with a laser, but that wasn’t an option with Cuddy’s vocal chords, which despite having the polyp, were in great health.

Instead, Anderson relied on micro-sized instruments, literally one-to-two millimetre tools to remove the polyp. Anderson knew the stakes were high.

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“Singers identify with their vocal chords as being their soul, their personality, what they do, what they are. And the thought of losing that is a very deep fear for a lot of them,” Anderson said.

Post surgery, the doctor’s orders were simple: Cuddy could not speak for four days as his voice and vocal chords healed. But she asked him to say his name.

“As soon as I said my name, I thought, ‘Oh my god. That obstruction I had been living with for so long is gone,” Cuddy recalled.

He had trouble keeping quiet, though. Abstaining from talking made him realize he loved to talk — to the TV, while humming to himself, while grocery shopping.

But his recovery was underway. Six weeks later, Cuddy was singing. By three months, Cuddy would get the roar of his full volume back.

“Everything that (Anderson) told me would happen at one month, what would happen at three months, what would happen at six months, was true,” Cuddy said.

“For me, it was a remarkable recovery. Kind of like getting a rebuilt engine in a car. I have never had any problems since.”

Meanwhile, Anderson’s voice lab has been thriving. The hospital has supported her efforts with about $250,000 in new endoscopic equipment so she has access to the latest in technology to carry out her surgeries with precision.

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With her new equipment, Anderson’s been able to help patients with vocal chord paralysis from head injuries or cancer, for example, with ease.

“Instead of having to put them to sleep in the operating room, they can be sitting in the chair…and with a little bit of freezing in a needle and the endoscopic equipment…I’m able to do a correction in 10 minutes,” Anderson said.

Cuddy still returns to Anderson’s office for annual check-ups, though.

He’s been with Blue Rodeo for almost three decades, and said he’s pretty sure he developed the polyp from his lifetime of singing.

“It was in the early days, playing loud and singing over a band is incredibly hard on your vocal chords. It’s singing — continually singing — when you recognize that it’s hurting,” he said.

“But you’ve got gigs and in the early days of a band, you’re playing 200 or 300 times a year. It’s too much wear and tear on your voice and also…there’s no safeguard.”

But Cuddy’s staying committed to both his craft and his health. He said he’s looking after himself with “ultimate care.” Blue Rodeo’s 13th album, In Our Nature, was released Tuesday.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© Shaw Media, 2013

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