Dubai: “I want you to understand,” the doctor said. “You will not be able to speak again.”
Nancy Paul, a former teacher in an Ajman school and a church choir member, had undergone surgery to remove a lump in her throat, a procedure following the diagnosis of papillary thyroid carcinoma in 2014.
The surgery in India took 14 hours and she had to be put on the ventilator. When she recovered, Paul realised she could only let out gasps of air. She had lost her voice.
“A laryngoscopy found that my vocal cords were paralysed, and I was told that surgery would not help regain my voice,” Paul, 43, recalls. “A miracle was all that I could hope for.”
It all started when Paul began losing weight and had emotional mood swings. She ignored it, thinking this was normal during pregnancy. But when people began pointing out that she looked exhausted, the doctor decided to investigate. Cancer was detected and surgery was recommended.
But the days after surgery turned to weeks and months. The voice showed no sign of returning.
“And when one doctor told me firmly that I had to accept not being able to speak again, I was shattered.”
Married with two children who were four years and three-months-old, Paul was concerned about the family. Her infant son had not even learnt to recognise her voice. Her teaching career was on hold and treatment meant her children had to be away. Radio iodine therapy made her bones weak and the isolation treatment took an emotional toll. “Even my husband had to keep a safe distance because of the medicine,” she said.
I prayed every day. Even though I did not have a voice, I prayed because it gave me hope.
Communication was not easy, but her husband was a pillar of support. “He was the only person who could understand what I was trying to say with my airless voice.”
“My friends encouraged me, saying they could see a positive change. But I knew they were just trying to make me happy.”
“I prayed every day,” Paul says. “Even though I did not have a voice, I prayed because it gave me hope.”
“The prayers offered by my loved ones, including my husband’s family, instilled confidence in me and was a driving force for positivity.”
During this time, Paul put down her feelings, fears and uncertainties into words. It was cathartic. First they were just scribblings. Then the words turned to poems. “After they were sent to people to read, a well-known writer identified the poet in me and encouraged me to write more.”
The writing was refined, leading to Paul’s first book, Muted Music, a title that indicated how much she missed singing. “I was a choir member for many years. I began asking why I lost my voice although I sang in church. So when I stopped singing, I compared myself to a church bell with a broken clapper.”
A new beginning
Five months later, Paul woke up listening to her own voice.
“There was no indication the previous night that I would be able to speak again, but a miracle happened.”
The voice was husky at first, but over several months Paul regained her ability to speak, sing and get back to teaching in school.
She continued writing. The recovery called for another book. This time she titled it ‘Unmuted Music.’
Looking back, Paul attributes the strong support from her family, community and school for helping her make the recovery.
Today she has three books to her name and trains others in creative writing. Her children, Johann, Jotham and Jemima, in Grades 8, 4 and 1 are the centre of her life.
Along with teaching in NI Model School, Paul is pursuing a doctoral programme on the transformational potential of trauma. “It’s about the positivity exuded by those who undergo a disturbing experience like me – enough to transform a person.”
She has won various awards for her writing, including the Panorama Literature Festival Special Jury Award 2020 and the Global Youth Icon Awards 2018.
She has been recognised by The World Academy of Arts and the World Congress of Poets.
She represented India in the FeminIstanbul Poety Festival in Istanbul, Turkey, organised by UNESCO.