Like a lot of couples, Scott and Shelly Adams finish each other’s sentences. Except in the case of Scott, 53, the man behind the cubicle-culture comic strip Dilbert, his wife’s voice was his only way to communicate for 3½ agonizing years during which a rare vocal disorder rendered him nearly mute. “I’d smile and nod,” he says, “but couldn’t talk. I felt like a ghost.”
Adams tells the story, in his home in Pleasanton, Calif., in a gravelly, high-pitched voice-higher and rougher than the one he had but one he’s grateful for after undergoing a little-known operation at UCLA in 2008. The procedure, says his surgeon Dr. Gerald Berke, is producing dramatic results for some of the roughly 40,000 Americans with spasmodic dysphonia-in which the vocal cords go into spasms, resulting in strangled, garbled speech: “It’s not a cure, but it can make it so much better.”
Adams’ nightmare started five years ago, when he woke up with a cough. “I thought it was laryngitis,” says Adams, whose doctors groped for a diagnosis while certain consonants became unpronounceable for him. “I’d order a Diet Coke: It would come out ‘iet-oke.’ I sounded like a damaged robot.”
After undergoing medical tests for everything from vocal polyps to a brain tumor, Adams discovered the answer himself after finding the condition on the Internet. Communicating with his editors by e-mail, he kept producing the satirical strip that appears in some 2,000 newspapers in 70 countries. “I was lucky,” says Adams. “I had a job where I could be silent.” He came to dread everyday activities such as ordering at a restaurant or going to a party.
His lifeline: Shelly, 41, a divorced mom of two whom Adams, never married, met at a sports club in 2002. “Shelly became his translator,” says Nalini Frush, a family friend, describing how, familiar with her husband’s speech hiccups, Shelly would convert them into sentences the world could understand. “He would say, ‘I’m sorry this is so hard on you,’ ” Shelly recalls. “But it was never a burden.”
Two years after their July 2006 wedding, Adams-who had been getting Botox shots in the larynx, a treatment that works for many patients but had uneven results for him-sought out Dr. Berke. The surgery he had severs the nerve pathway between the brain and vocal cord and grafts a new nerve from the neck-essentially rewiring the larynx. At first just a whisper, Adams’ voice got stronger every day.
Today he’s back to firing off one-liners at parties and enjoying long conversations with Shelly. And though the stuff of office life fills his comic strip, he chose not to incorporate his struggle into Dilbert’s world. “It would have been impossible to explain in three frames,” Adams says. “And it wouldn’t be funny.”