Members find friends at laryngectomy group

By Adam Kramer

Members of the Long Island Jewish and North Shore Hospital Laryngectomy Support Group do not meet religiously every week just to support each other. They come to laugh, learn and talk about their lives.

All of the 16 or so members in the group have had a laryngectomy — an operation to remove their larynx — because of cancer and have grown into an extended family, which provides emotional support, strength and information to each other. They meet every Tuesday at LIJ’s New Hyde Park campus.

“It is a fun thing, except when you get a new member and we help them to overcome their fears,” said Earnest Tallarico, 83, of Little Neck, a musician by trade who had his operation 11 years ago. “We don’t learn anything from each other anymore.”

Shirley Herb, 77, of Floral Park, who still works in a bar and raised a family even though she had her larynx removed 18 years ago, agreed. Herb, who has a one-liner for everything, said all they talk about is politics even though they never agree on how to change the world.

“I still learn things,” said retired Fire Department Capt. John Iannuzzo, 84, of East Brunswick N.J. by way of Rosedale, who had his operation in 1992. “I learned to give myself the Heimlich.”

He said the other week he was home alone eating dinner when a piece of food got caught in his throat. Iannuzzo said he knew he would not die because his air tube and esophagus are no longer connected. But he knew he needed to remove the obstruction and said he remembered a lecture at a meeting, which taught them how to perform a self Heimlich Maneuver.

The group, which has been led for the past six years by Dr. Linda Glazer, was started about 15 years ago for larynx cancer survivors. Each of the members speaks with either an electrolarynx, an instrument that vibrates the throat when a person speaks; esophageal speech, forcing air from the lungs; or with a voice prosthesis.

“They are all amazing people who mobilize each other,” Glazer said. “Many people after their operations don’t want to go outside because they are afraid to be in the public eye.”

She said the members of the group are “role models” for people who recently went through the surgery since real life situations can cause trauma for many people who have been stricken with larynx cancer.

Herb said the members of the group help each other over the fears and problems most people take for granted. She described a telephone conversation she had with a man who flew into a rage thinking she was a machine because of the way her voice sounds with the electrolarynx.

“Most of all laryngectomy survivors are withdrawn,” Iannuzzo said. “They stay to themselves and don’t socialize because they can’t converse with everyone.”

Josephine Roman, 81, of Bayside, who raised four children — all college graduates — on her own and had her larynx removed 33 years ago, said sometimes it becomes very difficult and she can become stressed out when she has to speak.

Most people ask if she has a cold when they hear her speak, Roman, who uses esophageal speech, said.

Tallarico said it does not bother him to open up his mouth to talk with anyone and everyone. He said the only problem that he runs into is with “moronic adults.” But, he said, many laryngectomy patients are afraid to talk.

“The group is one of the most important parts of the week for me,” said Herb. “I don’t know how comfortable in my skin we all would have been without the group.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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