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A surgical team in California today announced they had done something remarkable. They replaced the larynx of a woman who hadn't been able to speak or breathe on her own for more than a decade. The larynx had been severely damaged when, under heavy sedation during a previous hospital stay, the woman pulled out a ventilation tube.

As Sarah Varney of member station KQED reports, this is believed to be only the second larynx transplant in the world.

SARAH VARNEY: This is what Modesto, California, resident Brenda Jensen sounded like just a few months ago.

Ms. BRENDA JENSEN: My kids always look at me in amazement. They think I'm a robot, so they laugh.

VARNEY: And this is what she sounds like today.

Ms. JENSEN: I would just like to thank everyone for all their help and for making me a candidate for this operation.

VARNEY: Jensen spoke at a press conference in Sacramento.

Ms. JENSEN: My 12-year-old granddaughter, Samara, she never heard my voice before because, you know, it was 12 years ago since I spoke, and she only knew me as talking with my mechanical robot voice and she called my machine the talkie-talkie machine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JENSEN: Well, now, I don't have it no more, so she don't need to play with the talkie-talkie machine.

VARNEY: During an 18-hour surgery last October at the University of California Davis Medical Center, doctors removed Jensen's voice box, her thyroid gland and her trachea. Then, they put a donated organ - from an anonymous accident victim - back into her throat, reconnecting the intricate nerves and muscles needed to bring Jensen's voice back to life.

Dr. GREGORY FARWELL (Surgeon, University of California, Davis): The neck is an unbelievably complex structure. The blood vessels are small. The nerves are incredibly small, and there's a lot of them.

VARNEY: That's UC Davis surgeon Gregory Farwell, who led the operation. He says much of the surgery was done looking through a high-powered microscope.

Dr. FARWELL: In Brenda's case, we put together five different nerves. These nerves on average are 1 to 2 millimeters, and the suture used to put them together is smaller than a human hair.

VARNEY: Larynx transplants almost never occur, say physicians, because they're rarely a lifesaving procedure, and doctors are reluctant to put a patient on powerful drugs that are needed to prevent the body from rejecting a transplanted organ.

But Jensen was the ideal candidate. She was already taking the drugs after a kidney and pancreas transplant five years ago.

An international team of surgeons came together for the operation. Dr. Paolo Macchiarini from Stockholm was in charge of removing the donated organ from the accident victim.

He says he practiced on animals every day for years to prepare for the surgery.

Dr. PAOLO MACCHIARINI (Chairman, Hospital Clinic de Barcelona, University of Barcelona): Brenda was the first human being where I did it, and I was very, very much afraid when we just released the clamping off the artery that we saw these beautiful organs just flushing full blood and working properly.

VARNEY: Jensen is still breathing and eating through a tube, but she does swallowing exercises every day and is beginning to feel sensation back in her throat. But perhaps the most delightful discovery, she says, is that she can smell for the first time in years because air can finally pass through her nose.

Ms. JENSEN: Well, I've been smelling food like crazy. I go to the store to buy cleaning supplies and everywhere you go you smell food. The bakery, God, that kills me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JENSEN: But it's just been a really, really unbelievable experience, smelling freshly cut grass and the air, breathing the different smells that go through the air, taking your garbage out, that's a real good smell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

VARNEY: Depending on how Jensen's recovery goes, doctors hope to eventually remove her breathing tube.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney in Sacramento.

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