ASH FLAT, Ark. (AP) - One year and 18 days.
That was the length of time that Sharp County Sheriff Mark Counts found himself unable to speak no louder than a raspy whisper.
Thankfully, Counts is once again able to do the simplest things, like talk on a telephone, address the quorum court and even sing along with the radio, if he so chooses.
Counts’ long road began on Oct. 7, 2016, when he was part of a group consisting of Sharp County Sheriff’s Department deputies, the Drug Task Force and the Cherokee Village Police Department that searched the residence of Donna Murphy and Thomas Yarbrough, both 60.
Counts said that he and other officers had received word that drugs and firearms could be involved in what started out as a probation visit.
The Batesville Guard reports that during the search, Counts found a trapdoor in the floor, under which a metal box was hidden. The box contained chemicals for making meth, like drain cleaner and ether. The chemicals were strong enough that the box itself was corroding, and when the box was opened, the chemicals’ fumes hit Counts directly in the face.
That’s when things got bad, fast. Within minutes, Counts had already seen his voice reduced to a whisper.
The following Sunday, Counts would find himself in the ICU at White River Medical Center, wondering if he’d ever be able to go back to work, much less get his voice back.
Within a couple of months, Counts would be back to work, but his voice was still gone. He spent much of 2017 trying to find a way to bring it back.
“I had been to three other ear, nose and throat doctors across the state of Arkansas and had been through speech therapy for about six months,” Counts said. “I had given up - I won’t lie to you. I was discouraged, down in the dumps. I didn’t have my voice and had to fight to talk, and a lot of people had a hard time hearing me.”
During this time, Counts would communicate primarily by text message, even at home with his family, including wife, Sonya, often while they were in the same room.
“People had a difficult time hearing me and when they walked off they would say, ‘Did you hear what he said? Why’s he whispering?’” Counts said. “It got discouraging over time.”
Counts did not give up despite what looked like a continuous line of disappointing news.
That changed about two months ago when he went to his family doctor, Counts said.
“While I was there she said, ‘I sent one of my family to an ear, nose and throat specialist at Barnes-Jewish in St. Louis. Would you let me send you?’”
Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis is the largest hospital in Missouri and is consistently ranked among the best hospitals in the U.S.
“Back on Oct. 10, I got my opportunity to go up to Barnes-Jewish,” Counts said. “I remember going in and sitting down and being really impressed. The doctor walked in - most of the time in the doctor’s office (it takes) 10-15 minutes you’re in and they’re working like cattle in and out the door. Me and my wife went in there and the doctor came in and introduced himself and he’s just down to earth. It impressed me that he had read up on what had happened to me. He started talking to me and I got to tell him what had happened there. He ran the scope down my nose and looked at my vocal cords. In just two minutes he said ‘We can fix this.’
“My wife’s eyes got real big and she said, ‘Tell me more,’” Counts said.
According to the doctors, when a person talks, their vocal cords are supposed to come together. Counts’ weren’t doing that. Counts said that the doctors told him that they would make the vocal cords hit by shooting Juvederm into them, causing them to swell up to a size where they would have to hit.
“They never understood why they didn’t come back together,” Counts said.
Dr. Joseph Bradley gave Counts the news that Counts was hoping to hear.
“I was just excited,” Counts said. “I said ‘OK, can we do that today’ and he started laughing and said, ‘No, we have to do that over at the hospital. We actually do that in the operating room in case anything goes wrong.’”
Counts told the doctor that he and his wife would be spending the night in St. Louis, hoping that they may be able to do it the next day.
Bradley is the assistant professor of otolaryngology at Washington University School of Medicine. His area of interest is voice disorders, professional voice problems, vocal fold paralysis, aging voice, spasmodic dysphonia and hoarseness.
“Most of the time when I go to the doctor and they set up some kind of test for you at the hospital, it’ll be a day or two before you hear from the hospital. Me and my wife had left and she said, ‘Let’s get a motel room.’ Within 20 minutes the surgery nurse had called her and said that the doctor wanted him at the top of the list. The nurse said, ‘He doesn’t understand that we’re packed for the next couple of weeks; can we do it Oct. 25?’
“My wife said, ‘That’s fine. We’ve waited this long; we can wait two more weeks.’”
On Oct. 25, Counts, his wife and his pastor, Steve Martin of First Free Will Baptist in Cave City, made the journey to St. Louis.
“(We were) sitting in the waiting room and there were 50-70 people in there. You couldn’t hear nothing from me. I leaned over to talk to my wife and she couldn’t hear me. So I kind of got discouraged and I was a nervous wreck to get it done, so I just walked around the hospital looking at things.”
About an hour later, Counts was called back for pre-op, where they got everything ready to go. It was explained that the results of the procedure wouldn’t be instantaneous and that the results could take some time.
“(Bradley) explained the series of shots he was going to give me,” Counts said. “About halfway through I said, ‘Doc, I’m ready.’ He said, ‘I know you are, Mark.’ I said, ‘You don’t even have to tell me what you’re going to do.’”
Counts was then taken into surgery where a scope was put up his nose, which in turn went down his throat. Soon after, the injections that were supposed to bring his voice back began.
“The first shot he gave me was just under the skin of my neck to deaden the whole area,” Counts said. “The second shot went all the way through and into my voice box. I’m telling you, that was tough to take because you didn’t have anything to deaden that area with.
“He saw that was hurting and stopped and pulled the needle out and looked at his nurse and said, ‘We need something, give him something stronger.’ The fourth shot was into the right vocal cord and I could literally start feeling that swell up when he started injecting that in there. I thought, ‘This is pretty neat.’”
By the sixth shot, which was in his left vocal cord, he said it felt like they had swelled up so much that he couldn’t breathe.
“I thought, ‘Mark, you got to breathe’ and I could feel some vibration in my throat and I grinned through the pain,” Counts said. “So after he gave me the sixth shot, (Bradley) took that camera from the other doctor. He said, ‘Now say the letter e.’ It took me a couple of seconds and I got it out there.”
The doctor stopped for a couple of seconds, then said, “Maybe this is going to be a little more instantaneous than I thought.”
Bradley told Counts to give his vocal cords a rest for the remainder of the day.
“Tomorrow you can get up shouting,” Bradley told him.
“They took me back to recovery and I was in there 30-40 minutes,” Counts said. “Then we left the hospital. We drove up there in a minivan, so I got in there and leaned the seat back and went to sleep.”
About two hours after leaving the hospital, Counts realized the van had stopped. He got up and looked around, noticing they had stopped at a gas station; his wife and Martin had stopped to get gas and were inside.
“I thought I would get out and walk around just a minute,” Counts said. “I walked in front of the van and was standing there and about that time my wife and preacher walked out. They had a Coke and a candy bar, just visiting as they came through there. I couldn’t get them to look at me so finally I raised my arms at them and they said ‘What is it, Mark?’ and I said ‘Can we stop and eat somewhere tonight?’ and my wife just started crying. That done it all for me, for me to be able to talk and for her to hear.
“It had been a year and 18 days that my wife and I had to communicate by sending texts back and forth. That’s how we communicated there in the living room like teenagers.”
His wife asked him if he could wait until they got to Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where there was more selection.
“I said, ‘I just wanted to talk,’” Counts said.
When they got to Poplar Bluff, Counts decided to call his father.
“I wanted to call my dad so he could hear my voice,” Counts said. “She said, ‘Make it quick; the doctor said you’re not supposed to be talking.’ I called my dad and started talking and he started crying when he heard my voice.”
The couple arrived home around 9:30 that night. Counts would wake up the next morning, Oct. 26, knowing that he would have full use of his voice again.
He woke up before 6 that next morning, wondering if this was real. He thought about how singers hum to prepare their voices for singing and wondered if he could hum.
“I started humming and I could feel that vibration. I had my hand on my throat and was grinning ear to ear because I could feel that vibration. To some people, that don’t mean a lot - it’s something they take for granted - but I could feel that vibration and I remember that as hard as that speech therapist worked, we never could feel any vibration. I was sitting there holding my throat and humming and I thought, ‘If the kids walk into the bedroom, they’re going to think their dad is crazy holding his throat humming at 5:30 in the morning.”
The humming would wake up his wife.
“She thought something was wrong and I started talking and she grinned real big and I kept talking. About 10-15 minutes into talking she leaned up and said, ‘Why don’t you call somebody so they can hear your voice. I said, ‘It’s too early in the morning.’ She said ‘yeah, but if you call somebody, I can go back to sleep.’ I just grinned.”
With his voice back, Counts hit the ground running.
“I started talking that Thursday morning and I think I quit that night at 9:30. I never knew I had so much to say. Just to see people’s faces. So many people have been praying for me in the community, people I work with, different churches, friends, family. To be able to give that story to them and to see how happy everybody was to see it was just great.”
But, unfortunately, this isn’t the end of hospital visits for Counts. The injections’ effects are not permanent.
“(Bradley) said on average they last nine months, sometimes up to a year. … Hopefully it will last a year; if not, he’ll do it again.”
As for Yarborough and Murphy, they have yet to go to trial a year later. They were back before Counts was out of the hospital when the incident happened.
“They did a CAT scan of my lungs. I was still in the ER and they were telling us that my lungs were just shot, and from there to the ICU,” Counts said. “Leaving the hospital on oxygen to where I am today - I am just blessed from God. To go from that where I am today I’m excited and very grateful.”
Information from: Batesville Guard, http://www.guardonline.com/
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