The Vocal Cord Guru

At first, the Center for Laryngeal Surgery and Voice Rehabilitation at Massachusetts General Hospital feels more like a theater lobby than a medical office. A panoramic window overlooking Boston graces the foyer, autographed photos of celebrity patients punctuate the pristine hallway, and a palpable serenity permeates the atmosphere. Then Dr. Steven M. Zeitels appears, walking briskly down the hall followed by a physician's assistant and a visiting fellow—and suddenly the whole place comes alive.

Zeitels is the center's director and the Eugene B. Casey Professor of Laryngeal Surgery at Harvard Medical School. Since the center's inception over ten years ago, Zeitels has used laser microsurgery to repair the vocal abilities of over a thousand patients with laryngeal tumors. In November, Dr. Zeitels operated on the Grammy Award-winning singer, Adele, who was suffering from recurrent bleeding of a benign polyp.

"They are very giving and willing to help," he said of his celebrity patients. "They understand that it is their leadership that a lot of individuals will follow, and when they give attention to something, it helps society." Julie Andrews, also a patient of Zeitels, serves as the Honorary Chairwoman for the Institute of Laryngology and Voice Restoration, a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 to promote education and research in laryngeal rehabilitation.

Zeitels is not just a celebrity voice doctor, however. A framed "thank you" note from a little girl named Jennifer hangs in his office, serving as a reminder of Zeitels's wide patient base, which varies in age and socioeconomic status. "I'm a cancer surgeon, that's my fellowship," Zeitels said. "When the outside world sees this thing related to singers, they think you're a voice surgeon. We just brought the rigors of surgical management to singers."

Although Zeitels has spent most of his career in Boston and Cambridge, he is originally from New Rochelle, N.Y. During his childhood, he spent many hours doing leatherwork, a hobby to which he credits his surgical skills. "The hand-eye technique and creativity came from the leatherwork. When I was in medical school I would watch the operations, and would be able to immediately participate."

Zeitels is an innovator in his field. He has designed more than 20 new laryngeal and pharyngeal procedures, and holds three laryngoscope patents. When he is not practicing medicine, Zeitels is busy working on his two latest projects. The first is a collaborative effort that involves reconstructing voice boxes with cadaver aorta; the second is the development of a biomaterial that he and his colleagues hope to apply to injured vocal cords—having a pliable enough material at this stage could make hoarseness disappear. "Once we get the materials soft enough, we are likely to create super-singers," Zeitels said.

Zeitels has received more than 50 awards and honored lectureships over the course of his career, but he believes that his success has been greatly dependant on his collaborations. "You need other people to stimulate you. You need to be around other thoughtful people" Zeitels said. "It's hard to innovate in surgery and medicine in a bubble."