KALAMAZOO, Mich.—In summer 2019, Andy Dominianni spent eight solitary weeks at his family’s cottage in upstate Michigan, but not for a relaxing hiatus. Instead, the evening anchor for WWMT-TV Newschannel 3 in Kalamazoo was determined to find his voice again. The singular, distinctive audial source that his livelihood depends on had rebelled against him out of the blue the previous year, thereby jeopardizing his career.
“It was horrifying,” Dominianni says. “It was easily the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.”
The problem began in August 2017 while shooting footage for a piece on the 50th anniversary of the Detroit race riots. His stand-up, which typically took only one or two takes for this seasoned news professional to nail, instead took 11 takes. His voice kept breaking. Every third word came out as air without sound.
Amid a series of false starts with specialists who weren’t a good fit for him, Dominianni met Heidi Douglas-Vogley, a master faculty specialist in WMU’s Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences. Her vocal assistance and emotional support, he says, made possible his recovery.
DREAD AND DIAGNOSIS
Dominianni says he pursued a TV news anchor career because of the varied learning opportunities and chances to meet fascinating people. An internship at ABC News during his college years inspired him, and one of the smallest TV markets at the time in the United States—Alpena, Michigan—gave him his start.
“It’s a very fun job,” says Dominianni. “It’s a public platform, so it’s a front-row seat. I get to see everything as it’s happening, and I get to interview the people who are making it happen. So, I get to really make a difference.”
Following his fateful Detroit assignment, Dominianni says he feared the worst. Was it lung cancer? Extensive imaging concluded it wasn’t. Was it a vocal cord nodule? An upper endoscopy, which necessitated Dominianni being on camera in a far different way, negated that theory, too. An out-of-town ear, nose and throat doctor misdiagnosed him. A local specialist with a less-than-pleasant bedside manner increased his anxiety and consequently worsened his symptoms, he says.
“In the meantime, I was not able to do my job very well,” Dominianni explains. “Going on live TV was difficult. I was so anxious about my voice failing, and that anxiety made my condition worse. There were nights where I just couldn’t eke out the words.”
Viewers noticed. So did his bosses. He tried everything he could think of, and lots of methods that were suggested to him, but no amount of hot tea brought his voice back to its easygoing and unbreakable normalcy.
Three occurrences gave Dominianni his biggest breaks: connecting with Douglas-Vogley, whom an acquaintance of his recommended; reaching out to retired American public radio star Diane Rehm, who has also had vocal difficulties; and finally receiving an accurate diagnosis.
Douglas-Vogley, a tearful Dominianni says, “couldn’t have been nicer. She couldn’t have been more understanding. She said ‘I know what you’ve been going through. I had a similar speech problem myself.’ Come and see me.’ ”Her compassion, he says, contrasted with the frustration, fear and alienation he was feeling at that time, and provided a foundation for healing.
“Everybody was trying to be helpful, but nobody knew what I was going through. And Heidi did. Heidi knew,” says Dominianni.
Douglas-Vogley has extensive experience with diagnosing and therapeutically treating a variety of vocal problems. She teaches speech-language pathology and privately practices, and has worked at WMU for 27 years. Previously, she served as a senior speech-language pathologist for Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo.
Meanwhile, Rehm suggested there may be something more at play than muscle tension dysphonia, which was Dominianni’s original, inaccurate diagnosis.
As he continued to seek medical help, Dominianni ultimately returned close to where his problems suddenly began. A Newschannel 3 viewer, as well as another local otolaryngologist, recommended he see
Dr. Adam Rubin, in St. Clair Shores, north of Detroit. The laryngologist, whose office walls are adorned with autographed photos of world-famous singers and other vocal performers he has successfully treated, finally provided an accurate diagnosis for the Kalamazoo news anchor: abductor spasmodic dysphonia.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
Dominianni has one of the rarest of rare vocal afflictions. Spasmodic dysphonia is a neurological disorder that affects about one out of every 100,000 people; far fewer have ABSD, the affliction as it pertains to the abductor variety. The voice muscles in the larynx, or voice box, are targeted, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Instead of producing a continuous air stream that vibrates the cords for sound production, the cords involuntarily spasm, which causes voice breaks and a strained tone.
Ironically, Dominianni also then developed a compensatory muscle tension dysphonia because of the unnatural physical methods he was using to keep his voice from breaking and straining. MTD causes vocal quality changes, discomfort in the neck or throat, voice fatigue and other speaking problems, according to Weill Cornell Medicine’s Sean Parker Institute for the Voice.
“I was recruiting other muscles to force sound out however I could,” Dominianni explains. “I did everything but stand on my head to make sound come out. I remember tensing all the muscles in my stomach, my legs, certainly my neck to just eke it out. So, the one problem caused the other.”
“The larynx for all of us is an emotional thermostat,” Douglas-Vogley explains. “Anytime we have stresses and tensions, they can zap us laryngeally and people can lose their voice. Some people get migraine headaches, some people get upset stomachs, and some people develop varying levels of laryngeal dysfunction.”
Douglas-Vogley and a graduate student initially visited Dominianni on set to watch him work, and provided him with vocal training on WMU’s campus to help ease the self-imposed strain on his vocal cords. But because the news never stops, his phrenetic schedule didn’t make it easy to squeeze in sessions.
“Throughout this process, whenever he was on air, I did my best to watch him when I could and sent him real-time text messages about what he needed to do to fix his voice on the spot,” Douglas-Vogley says.
In person, traditional vocal training continued, and “we also addressed the whole notion of stress management and relaxation as it impacts laryngeal function,” she notes. The pair concentrated on specific sounds that gave Dominianni the most difficulty; two of those were words that begin with the letters ‘h’ and ‘a,’ which meant that his signature evening newscast greeting and his own name were nearly impossible to utter. Proper coordination of breathing with voice production was essential. Also used was “straw phonation,” a strategy that keeps the throat, voice and larynx more open.
Unlike most people, who take their ability to speak for granted, Dominianni must now consciously think about how he breathes and uses muscles in order to use and protect his voice. He has adopted the professional singer’s technique of breathing diaphragmatically, and intentionally avoids quick catch breaths and chest and shoulder raising while he’s speaking (on air and otherwise) to maintain a normal, continuous tonal flow.
From a medical standpoint, Dominianni was prescribed oral medication to help ease the MTD, and Botox to address the ABSD component. The Botox injections he receives approximately every three months are “as fun as they sound,” he says.
“They numb your larynx with this awful medicine that makes you feel like you’re drowning,” Dominianni says. “In about 20 seconds, you think you’re dying even though you know you’re not. And then they shoot Botox all the way through your Adam’s apple into the back of your neck where the thyroarytenoid muscle lives. That paralyzes the muscle,” which then prevents the vocal cords from spasming, he explains.
The medical interventions were essential, but after more than a year of straining his body to try to force his voice to work, Dominianni says he had to relearn how to talk and safely project his voice for work purposes. This last piece of the puzzle, he says, involved time, perseverance, some unorthodox vocal methods and isolation at the remote family cottage. The time alone, he says, enabled him to set aside everyday responsibilities and distractions that would’ve encroached on his vocal retraining.
Armed with an extensive homework list of daily vocal exercises and a stack of books that he’d always wanted to read, he voluntarily sequestered himself from everyone, including his wife and children, for nearly two months, to recover. For eight hours each day, he concentrated on this goal.
The books, he says, were less for enjoyment and more for vocal therapy. Rather than reading them, he hummed through the tomes to retrain his voice to properly use air flow. Two nonfiction works—one about the U.S.S. Indianapolis and another about the mafia —served Dominianni’s vocal purposes. He may be the only person who has spent a summer humming through gripping narratives about the ship that transported parts of the world’s first nuclear bomb for detonation in Hiroshima, and about organized crime.
Dominianni also used this time to improve his diet, and adopt other healthier lifestyle changes.
“I kind of just decided I was going to hit reset on everything,” he says.
Dominianni also knew this was his last chance to keep his job. If his recovery wasn’t markedly noticeable, if his voice continued to falter, he was certain he would be reassigned to a different position or dismissed. Therefore, for the last two weeks of his 10-week work leave, he returned to Douglas-Vogley, who went with him to the set to practice in his natural work environment.
Douglas-Vogley also recruited a handful of graduate students to help with a specific advocacy project for Dominianni, which compiled vocal improvement proof.
“I asked his employer to forward several clips over a span of about six months to me so that my graduate students could listen to him, analyze and assess,” Douglas-Vogley says. “We were then able to send them a graphic picture of the measurable progress that he actually had achieved.” The students thought the project was “fun and exciting,” she says, and were glad they could help someone, and were appreciative of the experiential learning opportunity.
The university setting, Douglas-Vogley points out, paved the way for a more pliable approach to Dominianni’s treatment.
“The advantages of us being able to work with him are, we have the flexibility to spend a little more time, to be a little more creative, to be able to call in outside resources and to not feel the pressure that I think we might feel if we were working within the rigid confines of a non-university based outpatient center,” Douglas-Vogley says.
“And, we were able to have the advantage of being able to see him live, doing his job,” and “give him some direct, relevant feedback related to what he’s doing,” she says.
Also helping matters was that Dominianni was “a wonderfully compliant client” who “was a delight to work with,” Douglas-Vogley says. “He’s an appreciative, kind person.”
The time off, the exercises and the intensive speech therapy that Douglas-Vogley provided worked.
“I still have to do some vocal function drills every day, neck stretches and things that just kind of relax these muscles because they tend to tense up, but I would say that my voice is almost perfect,” says Dominianni.
SPEAKING OF PROGNOSIS
Although obviously treatable, ABSD is not curable. Dominianni will have to receive treatment for the remainder of his life to keep speaking.
Other difficulties remain. For many ABSD sufferers, including Dominianni, mundane acts such as talking on the phone and ordering at a drive-through window are impossible; he resorted to texting and emailing friends and family during his long stay at the cabin. A bout of influenza physically set him back and was emotionally more taxing on him than it otherwise would’ve been.
At one point, Dominianni, at Douglas-Vogley’s suggestion, decided to publicly detail some of his vocal challenges for viewers. The explanation helped both them and him close the divide, and it provided a platform for people to offer support and encouragement.
“I’ll never stop being grateful to her,” Dominianni says of Douglas-Vogley. “There was no magic pill, but because she was nice and understanding, I wanted to get better for her.”
“I think that’s why any of us get into this field. We hope that we can make a measurable difference in somebody’s life,” says Douglas-Vogley. “I feel like Western Michigan University allows me the opportunity to be able to make those impacts in people’s lives.”
With the support network he’s cultivated and with the concession he’s willing to make, Dominianni is hopeful that he can remain as a news anchor for several years.
“Where do I go from here? I’m not going anywhere,” he says. “I’m staying right here and doing what I want to do.”
For more WMU News, arts and events, visit WMU News online.