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Freed Hostage Has Surgery For Cancer on Vocal Cords

May 17, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Freed American hostage Robert Polhill had his voice box removed in four hours of surgery Thursday because of a cancerous growth on his vocal cords.

″He is resting in intensive care,,″ said Ben Smith, spokesman for Walter Reed Medical Center. ″His condition is good. The surgeons characterized the operation as successful.″

Smith said Polhill probably will remain in the hospital’s intensive care unit for a time because of his diabetes and weakened condition from his hostage ordeal, although the spokesman provided no specific duration.

Polhill will then go through radiation therapy, said Col. Russ Zajtchuk, deputy commander of clinical services at the Army hospital.

The former hostage’s wife, Ferial, and mother, Ruth, were with him in the hospital, said Smith.

Smith declined to provide any more details about Polhill’s condition, saying an update on would be provided Friday.

Polhill, 55, who was freed by Shiite Moslems last month after 39 months in captivity in Lebanon, greeted freedom with a raspy voice that provided the first hint to his cancer. When he arrived in the United States on April 27, he could barely speak above a whisper, which officials initially attributed to his ordeal.

Zajtchuk said Wednesday the tumor was probably at least a year old when it was diagnosed.

″If it had been discovered earlier, he probably wouldn’t have to lose his voice box, provided he had the right radiation therapy,″ Zajtchuk said.

Polhill told his doctors that physicians examined him eight or 10 times while he was in captivity, although Zajtchuk said they probably didn’t look at his throat.

Doctors postponed tests for cancer until last week to enable the former hostage, who lost 25 pounds in captivity, to regain enough strength to undergo the general anesthesia necessary for a biopsy.

Zajtchuk said before surgery that the ″extensive″ growth involved both vocal cords and had spread above and below them within the larynx, but there was no evidence it had spread to the lymph nodes.

″He’s a smoker and this condition is related to smoking,″ Zajtchuk said, adding Polhill told him his captors had provided him with cigarettes.

″Smokers are by far the highest risk group,″ and male victims outnumber females by a ratio of almost 5 to 1, said Dr. Allan Abramson, chairman of Otolaryngology Department of the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, an expert on such cancers.

After his recovery from surgery, Polhill will have to learn how to verbally communicate without a voice box. Abramson said there are three options for laryngectomy patients:

-An electronic device the patient puts against his neck to transform the movement inside into a metallic-sounding voice.

-Esophageal speech, involving use of air pushed up from the stomach to vibrate in a way that produces a gutteral-sounding speech.

-Surgery to insert a breathing valve in the throat, against which air vibrates and produces a sound similar to the human voice.

Zajtchuk said Wednesday that Polhill had begun working with a speech therapist to discuss what he will do after treatment.

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