MOUNTAIN VIEW -- Shedding light for the first time on a condition that forced him to stop speaking temporarily last year, Google (GOOG) CEO Larry Page said Tuesday that he has been diagnosed with a nerve condition that limits the movement of both his vocal cords.
Page, 40, said his problems began more than a decade ago after he suffered a severe cold. He also disclosed that he was diagnosed 10 years ago with Hashimoto's thyroiditis, an autoimmune condition that he described as benign, although some medical sources say in rare cases it can increase the risk of thyroid cancer.
"It's unclear if this is a factor in the vocal cord condition, or whether both conditions were triggered by a virus," Page wrote in a lengthy post on Google+, his company's social networking service.
Page did not say what prompted him to publicly discuss his voice ailment now. The Google co-founder had previously offered no details about his diagnosis, which prompted speculation and frustration among some in the tech industry after he was forced to skip several public appearances last summer. At that time, Google officials said only that Page needed to rest his voice to recover from an undisclosed problem.
While the condition continues to leave him sounding hoarse and can also affect breathing, Page wrote that "I'm fully able to do all I need to at home and at work." He added, "overall, I am feeling very lucky."
The cause of the condition, known as vocal cord paralysis, is still unexplained, according to Page, who said he's decided to finance "a significant research program" led by Dr. Steven Zeitels, a Harvard Medical School surgeon and voice expert who's treated well-known singers including Adele, Julie Andrews, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and Roger Daltrey of The Who.
Although Page last summer assured Google employees that there was "nothing seriously wrong," Wall Street analysts and corporate governance experts said he had an obligation to provide investors with an explanation for his condition. Since becoming CEO two years ago, Page has led an extensive reorganization of the giant Internet company while pushing to develop a host of new technology products.
Google's stock has been surging in recent months. It fell slightly Tuesday after Page's announcement, but it recovered quickly and ended the day up more than 1 percent at $887.10.
"It's always a source of concern" when a CEO has health problems, said BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis, but he noted that investors seemed reassured by Tuesday's announcement. "It's great to have a little more disclosure here."
Page wrote that his vocal problem was first diagnosed after a bad cold made his voice hoarse 14 years ago. When his voice didn't fully recover, Page said, a doctor told him that nerve paralysis in his left vocal cord was impairing its ability to move properly.
"Despite extensive examination, the doctors never identified a cause," Page wrote, "though there was speculation of virus-based damage from my cold."
Then last summer, after another bad cold, Page said his right vocal cord developed a similar problem that limited its ability to move. He said he's been told it's "extremely rare" for both vocal cords to suffer paralysis of this nature.
Although he downplayed the effects of the condition, Page wrote that vocal cord nerve issues can also affect breathing, "so my ability to exercise at peak aerobic capacity is somewhat reduced." But he added, "that said, my friends still think I have way more stamina than them when we go kite-surfing."
Even so, a local voice expert said Page could still face more serious symptoms in the future.
It's not uncommon for patients to have one vocal cord impaired and receive treatment that relies on the healthy cord to produce a normal voice, said Dr. Arman Abdalkhani, an otolaryngologist with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. But he said it's "extremely rare" to have both vocal cords paralyzed.
"A patient with true bilateral paralysis could have a very poor voice and there's very little you can do to make it better. And while it's rare, some even require a tracheotomy tube to help them breathe fully," he added.
Short of that, Abdalkhani said, Page may still face challenges performing his duties as an engaged and very public CEO.
"The major issue is clarity of speech. And you could get vocally fatigued after just 20 minutes of speaking if one cord is paralyzed," Abdalkhani added. "You'd be unable to project, so you'd need a microphone, even for speaking to just 20 people. So that could be a challenge for someone who has to attend a lot of meetings and speak a lot."
While seeking treatment and information about his condition, Page said he has met with a number of specialists, including Zeitels, who he said "is really excited about the potential to improve vocal cord nerve function."
Page said his wife, Lucy, will help oversee a research project led by Zeitels and the Boston-based Voice Health Institute. The multibillionaire CEO did not disclose how much he is donating to fund the effort, although Bloomberg News service said an unnamed source described the amount as more than $20 million.
Zeitels was the subject of a lengthy profile in The New Yorker magazine earlier this year. The British vocalist Adele publicly thanked him when she accepted a Grammy award last year. Daltrey has also credited Zeitels with removing a precancerous node from his vocal cord just weeks before he sang at the 2010 Super Bowl.
Contact Brandon Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org or Pat May at email@example.com.
Vocal cord paralysis is a rare but serious cause of hoarseness. When working properly, the two vocal cords act as a valve in the upper airway; they open to allow breathing and they close so that we can speak and swallow. When one of the two cords stops moving, a condition known as "unilateral vocal cord paralysis," this valve can leak, resulting in a weak and breathy voice and sometimes accompanied by difficulties swallowing. When both cords are impacted, an ailment called "bilateral vocal cord paralysis," breathing problems usually occur because the upper airway valve cannot open widely.
Source: Massachusetts General Hospital