Stuttering: A Physician’s Personal Odyssey


A surgeon in the US recounts his personal journey of being a life-long stutterer…

Having done my best even as a small child to understand this highly distressing malady, a periodic cursory review shows that over the last 70 years, possibly even thousands of years beginning with the Greek orator and stutterer Demosthenes, we have not made a lot of progress.

As often occurs I first was noted to stutter at approximately age 4 – 5 when our family was in turmoil.  Dad worked both as a Portland, OR city fireman and a longshoreman in the Port of Portland 1944-45.  With all the trained surgeons deployed worldwide, my mother fell in the hands of a GP surgeon whose judgment and skill were definitely sub-par.  Following a total thyroidectomy for Grave’s disease, it was only a befriended intern who recognized my profoundly hypothyroid mother on the hospital elevator heading for the OR where she was scheduled for a diagnostic exploratory laparotomy, the indications for which I as a retired general surgeon to this day have not the slightest guess!  Showing courage that few possessed in that era, he dared break through the chain of command, inform the prima donna GP surgeon that she was in dire straits with hypothyroidism and that the case be cancelled.  With thyroid replacement mother eventually recovered, but while deathly ill my siblings and I were literally “farmed out” to members of our 1st generation Swiss community, rotating periodically, all in a manner reminiscent of the orphan adoption trains circa 1900 that delivered, sight unseen, abandoned children from the streets of NYC to the Catholic orphanages and on to new homes in rural western America.

At that time I began to stutter uncontrollably and did so with varying degrees of severity for the next 70 years. Chronologically I recall:

–  A benevolent elderly couple who had already adopted three abandoned children to spend their formative years on their dairy farm, welcomed me.  “Please pass the b – b    * *  -butter” seemed like good fun, but years later I learned that so-called cluttering if not ignored until fluency developed might be a fixed stuttering problem, as postulated Dr. Johnson about 10 years hence, i.e. the “diagnosogenic” etiology of stuttering.

– Ridicule was less from peers than certain grade school teachers, who knowing nothing about stuttering, did not realize and merciless in their criticism that when speaking, to avoid speech blocks,  I would substitute words and phrases, do distracting tics, and various means of avoidance, only raising tensions to a higher level whenever called upon.

– Well-meaning friends had no end of blatantly wrong explanations and treatment recommendations:  “You talk faster than you think!”  Quite the contrary, a stutterer anticipates minutes, even days in advance what sounds are problematic.  “You never stutter when talking to the dog”, why not?  “Stuttering is all in your head!”  But then so are multiple ailments, functional and physical.  Time and again I would hear “I stutter and don’t let it concern me.” “Cluttering” and “stuttering” are easily confused.   One pushed me to attend the services of an itinerant faith healer, but I declined.

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