Dr. Anthony Fauci opens up about his vocal cord surgery: 'My voice was shot'

TODAY's Sheinelle Jones took six weeks off from work to recover after her operation, but Dr. Fauci didn't give himself the same amount of time off.
/ Source: TODAY

Dr. Anthony Fauci has been a leading voice for Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, but last month that voice was briefly silenced when he had to undergo surgery to remove a polyp from his vocal cords.

It's the same procedure that Sheinelle Jones went through earlier this year, and the two discussed what caused their condition and how they're coping Wednesday on TODAY.

Fauci believes his came from a bout of flu in December, an inflamed trachea and then lots of talking when the pandemic hit. Sheinelle's condition was at least in part from her talking for a living; the condition is more common in broadcasters.

After explaining that she thought she heard the polyp in Fauci's voice when she was watching him while resting after her own operation in February, Sheinelle asked Fauci about his recovery process. She was off from work for six weeks and didn't talk for two, but Fauci didn't take the same break.

"I think I probably should have done it your way," he said. "I had the surgery on a Thursday, and the (ear, nose and throat) surgeon told me essentially don't utter a word until Sunday ... I didn't strictly listen to him, but I'm going to be doing that now because I think I may be re-irritating it."

Fauci added that the doctor told him that after his four-day silent period, he could start talking for four to five minutes but "not back to back. No 30, 45 minute podcasts, no lectures."

"Then we had a bunch of emergency, catastrophic, White House-related — I guess the right word (is) crises," he continued. "I had to get involved in a lot of animated discussion. And then I kicked myself after that because what I did feel that night was it didn't feel 100% great the way it did five days after the surgery. So now I'm pulling back and talking maybe 10 minutes in a row, but not the 35, 40-minute things (that) really knock you out."

This strategy has worked for the most part. "My voice feels great now, as long as I don't talk for the next 20 minutes, that's the point," he said.

Fauci suspected something was wrong because his voice wouldn't return after a long lecture like it usually would.

"When I overuse my voice, I sometimes get what looks like a strain, not quite a rasp, and generally over the years, because I give a lot of lectures and off more than I really should, I generally rest my voice for a while, and when you do that, I get the full component back," he said. "But that wasn't the case this time."

"By the time I got to March, it was clear that my voice was shot," he continued. "I would wake up in the morning and do, you know, the TODAY show live. And it would be like, I had a frog in my throat no matter how much I gargled with salt ... how much I drank a hot soup or a hot coffee. When I would get in front of the TV, I couldn't get my normal voice."

It's something TODAY's Savannah Guthrie noticed speaking to the doctor back in April.

"Your voice does not sound great," she told him at the time. "I'm hoping it's just because you're doing a lot of interviews and briefings and stuff."

"No, I'm fine. I'm physically fine, but all I do all day long is brief people," Fauci answered. "I just need to keep my mouth shut for a little while."

Sheinelle then encouraged Fauci to follow the regimen of exercises that doctors recommend after vocal polyp surgery. "It sounds kind of silly, but it works," she said.

At the end of the brief conversation, Sheinelle gave Fauci an assignment of his own.

"So when our interview is finished ... or at least before you go to bed tonight ... take out the stupid worksheets ... You'll feel like ridiculous making all these noises, but tomorrow morning, you'll thank me ... I'm not a doctor, but I can tell you as a person who uses my voice for a living, it works."

"OK, I'll do that, I promise," Fauci said.