Dr. Stadler reconstructed Lt. Brian Murphy’s voice box.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
Dr. Michael Stadler, a 33-year-old head and neck surgeon, had just walked into his house, returning from a long shift at Froedtert Hospital. It was Aug. 5, 2012, and the relative newcomer to Froedtert – he’d worked there about a month – had yet to turn on the TV or hear news of the Sikh temple shooting in Oak Creek. “And then,” he says, “I got a page.”
One of the wounded from the shooting – which left seven people dead, the gunman included – was Oak Creek police Lt. Brian Murphy, the first responder. A bullet entered the left side of his neck, ricocheted against his spinal column and lodged into the right side of his neck. The impact effectively destroyed his larynx, or voice box.
Murphy was rushed to Froedtert, the region’s only adult Level 1 trauma center. “This injury to the larynx was the worst I’d ever seen,” Stadler says. But somehow, Murphy could still whisper. “I was very upfront with Lt. Murphy that he might never be able to breathe without a tube ever again,” Stadler says. “His injury carried a very high risk of severe and permanent injury, including the risk that he would never speak or swallow again.”
That frankness was appreciated. “What my wife and I both wanted was a straight answer, no sugar-coating,” Murphy says. So Stadler and the rest of the team went to work.
“We opened up the cartilage framework of his voice box like a book,” explains Stadler, who – even at the first incision – saw fractured, detached vocal cords. The surgical team repaired the damaged portions of the cartilage framework and reattached both of his vocal cords. Stadler rearranged portions of muscle from Murphy’s neck into the voice box to compensate for the defective and missing areas.
What happened next was the stuff of medical lore. Stadler reconstructed Murphy’s voice box, and Murphy regained use of its three main functions: swallowing, speaking and breathing.
Months later, Murphy was still working with Dr. Joel Blumin, another otolaryngologist at Froedtert, to build up scar tissue so the vocal cords could make better contact when vibrating. “He has a rough quality to his voice, but it’s still very discernible,” Blumin says. Recovery is difficult, in part because adult laryngeal trauma with so much neck trauma is rare, Blumin says. “Most of those patients die.”
Murphy’s outcome is so remarkable, Stadler says, that the team might write up the case in a medical journal. “Lt. Murphy’s voice will never sound the same,” he says. “I am impressed that he is as far along as he is.”
In February, Murphy sat in first lady Michelle Obama’s box at the State of the Union address in Washington, D.C. Although he now speaks in a whisper, which can sound as if he has a cold, his Brooklyn accent remains unmistakable.