yolanda heman-ackah, md

Published on May 17, 2017

Pleased to post an interview with Dr. Yolanda Heman-Ackah, laryngeal surgeon. 

#fellowshipofthelarynx #laryngology #laryngealsurgeon #singingvoice #voicerehabiliation #vocology #professionalvoice

TVF: Where do you currently practice/teach?
YH: I am currently practicing at Philadelphia Voice Center in Bala Cynwyd, PA, which is at the city line of Philadelphia.

TVF: Where did you complete your medical training?
YH: I graduated medical school from Northwestern University. I did my residency in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the University of Minnesota. I did my fellowship in Professional Voice Care and Laryngology with Dr. Robert Sataloff at the American Institute for Voice and Ear Research in affiliation with Thomas Jefferson University and Graduate Hospital.

TVF: How/why did you come to choose laryngology?
YH: I have always been involved in the performing arts since the age of 7 years. When I was a resident, I was performing with a dance troupe and many of the other dancers were also singers and actors. Without fail, the day before opening night before a show, they'd come to me and say "I've been in tech all week and my voice is shot. We open tomorrow, what do I do?" When I was a resident, voice care was not an integral part of otolaryngology or otolaryngology training. I would have to go to the library and research my friend's problems to help them. I found myself always reading something that Dr. Sataloff had written that eventually ended up helping my friends, and I decided to do a fellowship with him to learn more about voice care so that I could help my friends. I fell in love with it and decided to devote my entire career to professional voice care and laryngology.

TVF: What comes to your mind as one of the most pressing issues in contemporary voice disorders?
YH: A lot of voice doctors still don't appreciate the functional problems professional voice users can have from mild vocal fold paresis. I find that many professional voice users, particularly singers, struggle with their voice because their vocal fold paresis was never diagnosed or treated.

TVF: What is your research interest?
YH: At the moment, my research is focused on illnesses and diseases that commonly affect the head and neck region and how those diseases affect the voice.

TVF: How do you hope your research will be applied in the clinical field?
YH: My goal is to open the eyes of everyone who treats professional voice users (meaning all doctors, not just laryngologists) so that they understand how illness can and often do affect the voice before they even begin to cause more major and common symptoms.

TVF: In your opinion, what poses the greatest challenge in care of voice disorders?
YH: Insurance carriers are increasingly beginning to look at voice care as more cosmetic than medical. Many insurance carriers have very narrow and specific disease categories for which they will cover voice therapy, although it is commonly accepted among laryngologists that the medical indications for voice therapy extend far beyond these narrow sets of disease specified by the insurance companies.

TVF: In your opinion, what are some of the most important advances made in the field of laryngology in the recent years?
YH: I think that the use of Botox for spasmodic dysphonia is one of the biggest advances made in the field of laryngology. I was able to show that a voice measure called cepstral peak prominence is a reliable way to measure the severity of voice problems, and this finding is a major advance in our ability to compare the outcomes of treatment in a reliable way that is not biased by clinician or self report.

TVF: What is your vocal pet peeve and why?
YH: I really don't understand why some singers smoke, particularly those who smoke marijuana. All forms of smoke are damaging to the vocal folds, and once the damage sets in, it is irreversible.

TVF: Which vocal myth would you like to dispel?
YH: Drinking apple cider vinegar cures hoarseness and reflux. It does neither.

TVF: Your most memorable voice case?
YH: I had a classical singer who was performing at a smoky piano bar on the weekends to make extra cash. He came in with vocal folds with inflammatory tissue that was so heaped up and extensive that I thought it was cancer. I put him on voice rest for a week, and the inflammatory tissue just disappeared.

TVF: Who have been your most important/influential mentors?
YH: I did my fellowship with Dr. Robert Sataloff, and to this day, he has been my most influential mentor. I learned a lot from him. I also built upon the foundation that he gave me early on in my career by spending time with other laryngologists who were on the forefront of laryngology, including Jean Abitbol in Paris, France, John Rubin in London, England, Jamie Koufman in New York, NY (I spent time with her when she was still at Wake Forest University), Steven Zeitels in Boston, MA, and Robert Ossoff in Nashville, TN. My style of laryngology really is a blend of all that I learned from these 6 individuals with a little of my on innovations mixed within; it is what makes me different from the other laryngologists and voice care professionals.

TVF: What is your advice in mentoring future laryngologists?
YH: Do your fellowship, but then spend some time with other laryngologists in their clinics and operating rooms so that you learn multiple ways of approaching the same problem. It will help you when you encounter a patient who doesn't respond to the way you would usually treat him/her and give you an armamentarium of approaches to use to help them overcome their voice or airway disorder.

TVF: What advice would you like to give to the general populace about voice care?

YH: Preventative voice care is better than any cure or surgery that can be done after the fact. The best time to see a voice doctor is when your voice is feeling good and functioning at its best. Go for a check-up the same way you would go for your annual physical examination. Often times, we can see issues that will affect the voice (such as reflux and allergy) before they start causing symptoms that limit your singing and treat them before they affect your voice. Having a baseline examination also helps to have a point of reference for comparison when you develop voice issues. Many singers and professional voice users have cysts and other abnormalities on their vocal folds and function just fine with them. When you develop hoarseness, it is good to know what existed in your "normal" state so that you do not undergo unnecessary surgery that still does not address your current voice issue.

TVF: What sparks “joy” for you as a person?
YH: I get the most joy out of returning people back to singing and performing through voice surgery and voice care after they have been absent from it for a while because of their voice problems.

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