Deadly Poison Becomes Good Medicine


The Rev. Frank Taylor travels from his Alabama home to Houston about twice a year, just so he can be injected with one of nature’s deadliest poisons.

Phyllis McMaster comes from Ohio for the same reason, a shot in the neck of the toxin that causes botulism.

Taylor and McMaster suffer from spasmotic dysphonia, a medical name for chronic voice loss.

Taylor, a Methodist minister, first noticed his voice cracking as he delivered Sunday sermons, and he finally had to leave his pulpit.


“It was very frustrating,” Taylor can say now, 16 years since he first lost his voice. “I started noticing breaks in my voice when I was preaching and it eventually got to the point where I felt that I was being choked. I couldn’t get the voice out.”

Taylor, 63, now works as a chaplin at a veterans hospital in Alabama. Over the years, he tried hypnosis, biofeedback and speech therapy to work out cracks and breaks in what little voice remained.

“I wasn’t totally without it, but I couldn’t talk on the telephone or when there were crowds. You just don’t want to socialize with people. It shuts you out completely,” he said.

Taylor is one of the first victims of spasmotic dysphonia treated at Methodist Hospital through the Baylor College of Medicine with small injections of Costridia botulinum, an often-fatal toxin.


Dr. Donald Donovan, deputy chief of the ear, nose and throat service at Methodist Hospital and a faculty member at Baylor, is one of the doctors who began using the toxin experimentally within the last five years.

The procedure first was available at teaching hospitals in Houston, New York and Washington. Since then, many of the larger medical school hospitals around the country have begun doing it.

Spasmotic dysphonia, which occurs in roughly 35 of 100,000 people, is characterized by spasms of the larynx that cut off air flow, breaking up the voice or causing a strangled sound.

Sufferers often worsen the condition by continually having to repeat themselves, further straining the muscles.

“The reason the condition gets so bad is because they try so hard to overcome it,” Donovan said. What the botulinum toxin therapy “does is helps break that cycle.”

Donovan said doctors diagnose the condition by putting flexible fiberoptics into the esophagus to videotape the movement of the throat muscles. Then, watching on a monitor, the doctor can insert a tiny needle through the throat and into the larynx, injecting the toxin into the muscle with the most severe spasms.

“It’s surprising when you think about it. But by inhibiting the contraction of one muscle, the other muscles seem to decrease in their excessive contraction as well,” Donovan said.

The procedure takes less than half an hour. The results last at least four to six months, Donovan said.


“I could talk better immediately afterward,” said McMaster, 59, of Springfield, Ohio. “It was a miracle for me. I just felt like 10 tons had been lifted off my shoulders.”

McMaster began losing her voice 10 years ago when she worked as a government procurement worker, a job that required her to be on the telephone for half the day.