March 10, 2016

Voice Center’s Garrett found life’s work in helping patients

Gaelyn Garrett, M.D., wasn’t a country music fan when she was growing up. When she came to Music City 22 years ago for a fellowship at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, she was planning to stay for only a year, and then find a job in her native North Carolina.

Otolaryngology’s Gaelyn Garrett, M.D., has spent her career at Vanderbilt University Medical Center helping patients find their voices. (photo by John Russell)

Gaelyn Garrett, M.D., wasn’t a country music fan when she was growing up. When she came to Music City 22 years ago for a fellowship at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, she was planning to stay for only a year, and then find a job in her native North Carolina.

She now treats some of the most famous names in country music as senior executive medical director of the Vanderbilt Voice Center and professor of Otolaryngology.

“Thankfully,” Garrett said, “I’ve never left.”

Garrett and the Voice Center staff have treated a laundry list of country singers, including Johnny Cash, Minnie Pearl, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Ronnie Dunn, Pam Tillis, Wynonna Judd, Gary Allan and Gretchen Wilson.

But you don’t have to be a celebrity to see Garrett — her life’s work is treating voice and airway disorders for people of all backgrounds.

“The artists, most of them are great people, they make up about 5 percent of our patient population,” she said. “My career would still be fulfilled if all I took care of was the other 95 percent.”

Garrett’s competitive drive and a series of happy accidents combined to create the career she has today — part clinician, surgeon, professor and researcher.

She grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a sister and brother. Her family was a competitive one — it was not uncommon to have a family football game during gatherings. Depending on the time of the school year, she was playing basketball, volleyball, tennis or running track.

“I’ve always been just a very curious person,” she said. “I really enjoy competition and being able to do something better, and learning how to do it better.”

As high school ended, Garrett flirted with becoming a lawyer before settling on medicine. She pursued a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry for her pre-med studies, and also attended medical school at UNC. She ran track throughout college.

Though she had decided to become a doctor, she didn’t enter medical school with a preconceived notion of how she would specialize.

As it turned out, her adviser was the chair of the Otolaryngology department. She was torn between being an otolaryngologist or an ophthalmologist.

“I think what really kind of turned the corner for me is how much I like surgery,” she said. “I love being in the operating room. I liked being around the people who were in the operating room. It was a very comfortable place.”

She also liked that a career in otolaryngology — or the treatment of the ears, nose and throat — would include primary care and treating patients of all ages and genders. Her interest in Vanderbilt and laryngology in particular was piqued when Robert Ossoff, DMD, M.D., founder of the Voice Clinic, came to UNC as a visiting professor. She began her fellowship in 1994 and joined the faculty a year later.

Gaelyn Garrett, M.D., shares a laugh with country music singer Gary Allan during his visit to the Vanderbilt Voice Center in 2011. (photo by Joe Howell)

Garrett now specializes in laryngology, the treatment of voice and airway disorders.

Her weeks consist of consulting with patients, performing procedures, administrative tasks and research on bilateral paralysis — the paralysis of both sides of the vocal cord.

Part of that work is treating singers when their voices are failing, and they’re anxious to have their voice restored.

“Probably the biggest decision-making thing that we dread is, do you tell them not to sing?” she said.

“Because that has a huge impact. It has an emotional impact on the artist, obviously, but it also can have a huge financial impact. Because a lot of them, if they’re not singing, they’re not making money.”

Sometimes a minor surgery is necessary to remove polyps from vocal cords that make the singers sound chronically hoarse.

“Thankfully, the most common things we see are more technique/behavioral issues that we can impact without surgery,” she said.

She prescribes good vocal hygiene, comparing saliva to a car’s motor oil. She advises singers to keep it fresh, by keeping track of medications that may dry the mouth, limiting caffeine and increasing water intake.

“With the voice, you’ve got a lot of moving parts, and those moving parts have to have healthy lubrication.”

Garrett gives a lot of credit to her staff. Singing specialists on staff help coach performers to sing in a way that doesn’t harm their voice. Others focus on airway disorders and issues with voice patterns while speaking.

“We’re really a team,” Garrett said.

When Garrett isn’t with a patient or backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, she’s spending time with her sister’s family and her parents. They relocated to Nashville to keep the family close.

She stays active — whether it’s skiing or mountain biking, playing golf or tennis.

“I’m kind of open to trying different things,” she said, though she added, “I will not bungee jump, and probably will never sky dive.”

She is, however, definitely a country music fan now.