THE TROUBLE BEGAN IN THE LATE 1990s. That’s when the doctors got frustrated with John Ward. He had finally sought treatment for his raspy voice, and vocal therapist after laryngologist after ear, nose, and throat doctor recommended rest and therapy for what many of them pegged as laryngitis. But nothing helped, no matter how diligently Ward followed their orders. Years passed. His voice worsened to a whisper. Yet the diagnosis remained the same, just as the problem remained Ward’s and never any hospital’s. The man simply was not trying hard enough to save his voice, the thinking went. By 2002, with an outlook as bleak as it was unforgiving, John Ward began fearing for his way of life.
Ward was a professor at Northwestern University’s business school and a lecturer and consultant the world over, an inquisitive man and an expert on family businesses who loved what he did. He had a slight, unprepossessing frame; wore thin-rimmed glasses; and made little effort to hide his ever-retreating gray hairline. In presentations, Ward could no longer project his voice; he had to rely on strained necks and the kindness of forced smiles to get through a session. Ward hated that. So he began lugging around a mic, a small amplifier, and a whiteboard to his appearances. But he couldn’t shake the thought that his equipment distracted from his speeches more than they aided them.
His life outside the lecture circuit suffered, too. To spare his voice he carried around 35 index cards with common responses to everyday questions, each card with its own smiley face. Yet presenting one to a stranger or even an associate only elicited pity. He went to parties but found himself excluded from conversation. When he played host he had to limit the number of people he could invite: too large a group, and he couldn’t be heard. Some friends, perhaps only naturally, fell out of contact with him. What would Christmas with his family become? And what would he do for a living if he couldn’t speak? That thought scared him most.
In 2002, a colleague at Northwestern recommended Ward see a laryngologist in Boston, a guy named Steven Zeitels. He was a world-famous surgeon, with a short but thick build ("squat" would always come to mind when describing him), thinning red hair, a graying beard, and the perpetually half-closed eyes of the overscheduled. His former patients included Cher, Steven Tyler, and Julie Andrews. When Ward met with Zeitels in late 2002, Zeitels told him there was a 20 percent chance he had cancer of the vocal cords. A biopsy was scheduled.
Ward’s wife, Gail, the principal of a Chicago high school, couldn’t go to the appointment. That day she was hosting Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley at a chamber of commerce luncheon. There, the minutes stretched into a couple of hours without a call from her husband. Finally, she called Zeitels’s office and got the doctor on the phone. He told her John had cancer, a tumor on each vocal cord.
"You hear the word ‘cancer,’ and you sort of lose your mind," Gail says. But John Ward didn’t. "It was almost a relief," he says. At last there was a culprit; he could try to find a way forward. Gail flew to Boston immediately so the three of them could discuss treatment options. That’s when Zeitels told them something else: He’d like John to be the world’s first patient for a new form of surgery. Working with minimally invasive lasers, Zeitels had repaired the broken blood vessels and incised the polyps and precancerous growths of hundreds of patients. He thought his lasers could also treat cancer, the heat from the light basically cooking the tumor. Radiation or chemotherapy would not be required; the laser would do all the work. Zeitels encouraged the Wards to do their homework — quite literally read academic texts — before making a decision. He also told them to seek outside opinions. Many of them.
And so they did. And each and every oncologist and radiologist said that Zeitels’s proposed surgery was a bad idea. Better to treat the cancer by proven means. The problem was that radiation precluded any other type of treatment. And what few doctors acknowledged was radiation’s own death sentence: an oftentimes successful remedy but a life with limited or no speech, because radiation in many cases stiffens the vocal cords beyond use.
Ward knew that was no life at all.
He called Zeitels back. As so many others had, he would entrust Zeitels with his future.