Arrow-right Camera

Washington Voices

Man With No Voice Has Loud Message Ex-Smoker Lost Larynx To Throat Cancer

Joe Michielli’s smile is so wide, it can warm your heart. His handshake is so strong, it can comfort a stranger.

And his voice … well, he hopes his voice can save some lives.

Michielli had cancer in his larynx. A surgeon removed his voice box last May. The Valley grandfather now speaks with an electronic device that captures the vibrations of muscles in his throat. The result is an electronic monotone. He sounds, to put it bluntly, like a computer voice from a Steven Spielberg movie.

“I want to tell you what the perils of smoking are.” Before his first sentence ends, nearly 50 eighth-graders at Centennial Middle School fall silent, their eyes on Michielli.

The 68-year-old former builder is speaking at any school he can wangle an invitation from, talking to children from first grade through high school about his battle with cigarettes and cancer.

“It’s up to you children to beat the tobacco companies,” he tells the youngsters. “Because if you don’t, they’re going to beat you.”

Requests for Michielli to speak have been pouring in. One day recently, he visited four schools - a pace he decided was too heavy. Two a day is his max.

Michielli tells of taking up smoking as a 21-year-old in the military. “I smoked Lucky Strikes. Everyone smoked in those days.”

As he speaks, he holds a special vibrator - about the size of a shaver - against his throat.

After Michielli got out of the service, he kept on smoking. He met and married his wife, Elena. They had two children.

When his children were 4 and 6 years old, they started nagging him to “kick the habit.” After 15 years, he quit smoking.

Twenty-nine years went by. Michielli, in business with his brother Pat, had a successful career building homes and apartments.

“Then I started having trouble with my voice.”

Michielli tells of doctor’s visits and bad news.

“But doctor, that was 29 years ago!” he protested. Michielli’s father and grandfather, both smokers, also died of throat cancer.

At this point in his story, as Michielli talks to the students, he gets out one of his props, a mesh mask, made for him at Sacred Heart Medical Center. He holds it against his face and turns in profile to the students.

His features blur. He somehow looks inhuman. The mask reaches all the way to the back of his head and then flares out.

“Here, here, here, there are six holes around the edge.” He touches each spot around the edge of the mask and explains that, wearing the mask, he was bolted down to the radiation table. That way, the aim of the radiation was precise.

After radiation, he had one healthy year. Then, his voice went again.

Doctors told him surgery was his only choice, the sooner the better. They also told him, after the surgery, that he’d nearly let the clock run out.

“I had just three weeks left to live,” he said.

A month after his surgery, Michielli decided to use his loss for the good of others. “Too many people (after such surgery) fall into a shell.”

At his first school, Hayden Lake Elementary, he faced 400 children.

“He was so nervous,” said counselor Sue Potts, “and he did a wonderful job. I can’t say enough great things about him.”

The man with no voice kept going. He loves children. He thinks he can make a difference. So, Joe Michielli talks and talks.

“Remember me,” he tells the children.

It appears they do.

Michielli has received a sheaf of thank-you letters from students.

At St. John Vianney School, where he spoke recently, assistant principal Charlotte Lamp said the students’ notes included comments like these:

“I knew that smoking was bad, but I really didn’t know it was this bad.”

“I wish my mother could have heard you talk. Maybe she would quit smoking.”

“We’ve had DARE, but that was nothing compared to this.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos