How An Indian Doctor Is Giving Voice To The Voiceless

Oncologist Dr Vishal Rao, inventor of the artificial voice box Aum, believes speech should not be a privilege and offers a scientific look at freedom of speech.

ByAbhinandan Sekhri
How An Indian Doctor Is Giving Voice To The Voiceless
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How is freedom of speech connected to a box of tampons, an ancient dying craft of wooden toy-making, and high-tech-yet-simple science? To understand completely, you’ll have to listen to the interview below and watch the video that’s embedded a little further down, in this article.

But let me try to explain through text if you are the reading type. Freedom of speech is something we debate about often. I discovered a different take on it through this interaction.

I met Dr (Prof) Vishal Rao, an oncologist with a delightful sense of humour and infectious energy, at an event at National Institute of Technology, Karnataka where we were both speakers.

I overheard him say something about freedom of speech and my ears always perk up on any discussion on the subject. Dr Rao helps people speak – literally. Those who have lost their voices – literally. He can get them to speak again.

He calls it Aum, after the ancient Hindu sound. Some spell it ‘om’ in the Roman alphabet, but he spells it Aum since that’s the sound it makes. Aum is a voice prosthetic device that is inserted in the throat through a surgical process developed by Dr Rao and his team. It is a substitute for the voice box, the organ in our throats that makes sure our voice makes it out of our bodies and doesn’t remain a thought to which we cannot give sound.  Cancer can mean one loses his or her voice box.  To keep the cancer from spreading, the voice box is often removed. And there begins a patient’s relationship with his or her own silence.  Before Dr Rao’s patented Aum device, there were (and still are) other devices that did the job of the voice box. These can cost you anything from Rs 30,000 to Rs 1,50,000. Aum is priced at Rs 50, less than a dollar.

The high price of the voice box prosthetic seemed wrong to the talkative doctor. He reasoned, why must only the rich have the right to speech? And that’s where the pursuit began. In a cold, profit-driven age where patents of life-saving drugs are hiked from $13.50 to $750 per pill, it is refreshing to come across someone who subscribes to an open source science philosophy.

As if developing Aum was not enough, Dr Rao also came up with an invention to insert it into a person’s throat without having to go into the operating room again. This is because the device has to be replaced every year or so.  This he did by using the skills of a wooden toy maker from Channapatna, a village in Karnataka famous for its wooden toys and lacquerware which is today a dying art.

The idea of the replacement tool came to Rao when he was in a supermarket shopping with his wife. His young son ran amok, dropping random boxes off shelves, including a box of tampons. As the doctor went to put the box back on the shelf, it occurred to him that if it could be as easy to insert the Aum voice box into place as it is to insert a tampon or nearly as simple it could save resources and time. So instead of putting the box back, Dr. Rao picked up a few more to take to his lab and experiment with the design. And the rest, as they say, is awesome. Let him show you how it works.

Why the name Aum? As per Indian mythology, aum was the first sound to exist. It preceded the formation of the universe. After a patient loses his or her voice following throat cancer, being able to speak again is a new beginning for the patient. It’s like the universe of sound opening up to you all over again.

How the device tricks the brain into using the food-pipe as the sound box is best explained by the doctor, so do hear the interview in the audio clip at the start of this piece. It is fascinating.

Dr Rao is passionate about freedom of speech and he should be, considering he can out-talk most people I know, but not for political reasons. For basic, existential reasons and most of all, for the sake of science. When I asked what had motivated him to develop this product, Dr Rao said, “Speech should be a right and not a privilege.” Students get it, doctors get it, scientists get it – maybe one day politicians will understand this simple truism too.

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