Healthy Lifestyle

Learning to breathe at 50+ years old: How a member of law enforcement regained normalcy

Tom, a speech therapy patient at Vassar Brothers Medical Center, jogging in a residential neighborhood on a sunny day.


Living with a chronic condition can be a challenging journey, but with the right diagnosis and treatment, your life can significantly improve. Tom was diagnosed with induced laryngeal obstruction (ILO) in February 2024.


Thanks to the speech therapy team at Vassar Brothers Medical Center, Tom is gradually getting back to his pre-diagnosis fitness level and doing what he loves most — playing soccer and jogging.


Induced laryngeal obstruction causes chest pain and shortness of breath


Tom’s journey toward a diagnosis of ILO was long and difficult, spanning from August 2020 to February 2024. It all began during the “COVID summer” of 2020 when, with more free time, he increased his exercise regimen. He was expecting to see improved performance; however, he saw the opposite. Tom started experiencing alarming symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath while running. He saw many doctors who each saw a piece of what was happening. But it was an otolaryngologist with specialized equipment who realized what was occurring.


“These symptoms turned my life upside down,” Tom said. 


“The stress and frustration of not knowing what was wrong, coupled with the physical impact of weight gain from steroids and the inability to exercise were overwhelming. Every day was a struggle, filled with anxiety and a sense of helplessness.”


Speech therapy for laryngeal obstruction changed everything for the better


Tom’s treatment journey was equally challenging. Initially, he was prescribed various inhalers and steroids, which had little effect. The breakthrough came when he was referred to speech therapy. This was a game-changer. Speech therapy didn’t just offer physical techniques; it provided a lifeline, teaching him coping mechanisms that gave him control over his symptoms. Understanding his condition was crucial. It transformed his approach from one of fear to one of proactive problem-solving.


Adapting to these changes required significant lifestyle adjustments. Tom loves playing soccer and jogging, so being constantly vigilant while exercising and integrating breathing and speaking exercises into his daily routine became his new normal. These changes, though challenging, were essential to managing his condition and regaining a sense of normalcy.



Hurdles fuel Tom’s determination to push forward after laryngeal obstruction


ILO affected Tom’s life in profound ways, particularly his exercise routine. Sports and physical activity were integral parts of his life and the symptoms of ILO felt like they were taking that away from him. However, with determination and the tools he learned in therapy, he is gradually getting back to his pre-diagnosis fitness level. 


Each step forward feels like a victory. “One of the toughest challenges has been passing the annual fitness exam required for my job,” Tom said. 


“It’s a constant reminder of the hurdles I face, but it also fuels my determination to keep pushing forward. Understanding my condition has been key to managing both the physical and emotional aspects of this journey.”



Support from his family and speech therapy team helps Tom stay motivated after laryngeal obstruction


The unwavering support from Vassar Brother Medical Center’s speech therapy team has been a beacon of hope for Tom. In the early stages of speech therapy, the simple task of breathing felt like an insurmountable challenge. The therapists' positivity and belief in his success were infectious, helping him stay motivated even when progress seemed slow. Their dedication and encouragement turned frustration into determination.


“My family’s support has been equally invaluable,” Tom said. 


“They gave me the space and understanding I needed to practice my speech exercises at home, often involving strange breathing and speaking patterns. Their patience and optimism were a constant source of strength, reminding me that I wasn’t alone in this journey. They were just happy there seemed to be light at the end of the tunnel.”



Tom encourages those diagnosed with ILO to prioritize speech therapy


To anyone newly diagnosed with ILO, Tom’s advice is clear: Prioritize speech therapy. 


“It’s not just about the exercises; it’s about understanding your condition and learning how to manage it effectively. This knowledge transforms your outlook from one of fear to one of empowerment,” Tom said.


He encourages patients to engage with their therapists, ask questions and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. This collaborative approach helps discover what works best for everyone, making the therapy far more effective.



ILO has been a journey of resilience for Tom


Tom’s journey with ILO has been long and he has faced challenges, but it has also been a journey of resilience, discovery and hope. 


“All of my doctors along the way have been really supportive. The speech therapy group were really great. In the beginning of the therapy, there is significant failure at the simple task of breathing. This was frustrating and tiring. The therapists remained undaunted and in good spirits, even when I wasn’t. You start to realize the therapists have no doubt you will succeed, and it becomes infectious. Eventually, the discussions and practice begin to take hold, and improvement ramps up quickly,” Tom said.


With the right diagnosis, effective treatment and unwavering support from his speech language pathologists and loved ones, Tom has made significant strides toward managing his symptoms and reclaiming his life. 


To anyone on a similar path, Tom reminds you understanding your condition and persistent effort in therapy can make all the difference. “You are not alone, and there is always hope for a better tomorrow.”


“I’m not sure how exactly to word this but … I hope there is significant recognition of my speech language pathologist, Nahida Unwalla. On the one hand, I was very unfortunate to have landed in the position of having to learn how to breathe at 50-plus years old. However, I was very fortunate to have linked up with a very decent person and tireless therapist. I was very pessimistic going into the therapy but thought I had nothing to lose, so I did it. I was wrong and realized that within minutes. Not because I made immediate gains, but because Nahida said I eventually would and I believed this.


Disclaimer: Outcomes for induced laryngeal obstruction vary from person to person. No individual results should be seen as typical.