After two painfully silent years, Augusta teen recovers ability to speak

Joyful noise

Three years ago, Patrick Bruce was a shy and quiet 13-year-old who, in a matter of days, inexplicably lost his ability to utter a word.

Without a voice, he would later express himself through his saxophone as a member of the Augusta High School jazz band.

This caught the attention of Renee Berggren, a speech therapist for Via Christi Rehabilitation Hospital in Wichita who also serves as the band’s color guard instructor. 

He could coordinate respiration and articulation to play the sax, which uses all the same muscles and systems as speaking, Berggren thought. “There must be hope for anyone who can play that well.”

Berggren remembered Patrick when nearly a year later he walked into her office at Via Christi for speech therapy. She incorporated Patrick’s sax-playing abilities to help him fully regain his voice.

“God places you where you need to be placed,” Berggren concludes.

‘What God has given’

For two years, no one could identify what was wrong with Patrick — which meant no one knew how to bring back his ability to speak.

“Everything came out as a babbling sound,” recalls his mother, Laurie Bruce.

Patrick visited a number of hospitals and specialists, undergoing multiple tests; a psychiatric evaluation was ordered. Patrick knew the problem wasn’t in his head and the tests confirmed that. Patrick was deemed mentally, psychologically and physically intact.

Laurie homeschooled him when it first happened, but after a month she sent him back to school.

“You’re not going to sit around feeling sorry for yourself. This is what God has given you and you have to deal with it,” she told him.

Patrick took her words to heart.

He communicated via text messaging and a voice application on his iPod — although both were slow and difficult processes for sharing what he had to say.

He continued to play soccer, though it meant he had to wave at teammates to pass the ball and couldn’t yell for help the time he fell injured on the field. He occasionally gave off strange gurgling noises that startled his classmates and drew teasing, causing him to withdraw and he quit band.

But in ninth grade, Patrick decided to give band another try.

“He was making noise and making music,” says band director Todd Hollis, who noted Patrick’s joyful expression when he was playing.

Answered prayers

Finally, medical tests ordered by a specialist detected the presence of a latent strep infection, a possible indicator of a pediatric autoimmune disease associated with strep, or PANDAS. Patrick was started on penicillin.

“We saw a fairly marked improvement,” said Kay Womack, MD, Patrick’s pediatrician at Via Christi Clinic.

Within weeks, Patrick was whispering.

Berggren worked with the whisper and Patrick’s musical skills to restore his voice. In their initial sessions, he strained to coordinate breathing, mouth and throat positioning in patterns that are normally considered “automatic.”

To encourage those “automatic patterns,” Berggren had Patrick position his hands as if holding his saxophone and asked him to “play” the sound by imitating the tonguing and rhythm patterns used when blowing his horn. Within months, he was back in full voice.

Berggren, whose family owns Apple Jack Pumpkin Patch, hired Patrick to work there through the fall, knowing that interacting with customers and co-workers would require him to use what he was learning in therapy and overcome his shyness.

The work paid off after Christmas, with Patrick achieving full voice and articulation. When he met Berggren for therapy in February, he no longer strained to make words, but worked on such refinements as voice inflection, body posture, eye contact and smiling while speaking.

Today, the smiles come easily for Patrick, who as a sophomore joined Skills USA, a scholastic leadership development group, and was elected to serve as a statewide officer.

“Before I lost my voice I was super-shy,” he says. “Now I can look people in the eye and say what I want to say.”

And while the two years of being unable to talk were painful, Patrick never lost hope.

“I just knew God had a plan for me.”

Visit for more information on comprehensive rehabilitation services for children and adults.


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