By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
American novelist Henry Miller once wrote:
“To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing.”
Miller never met Camille Nelson. The McNary High School senior, and veteran of the best high school choir in the state, wants to sing more than most people her age. She would settle for singing along to the radio in her car, but for the foreseeable future, even that small grace has been denied her.
If Miller had met Camille, he would have known singing also takes vocal cords, two of them, and Camille has been relegated to just one.
“It’s a really weird feeling. I was driving in my car and I just started singing along to the radio and then nothing came out. My mind knows what it’s supposed to be doing, but it just doesn’t work,” Camille said.
Camille spent much of her young life focused on bettering two skills – singing and soccer – but a diagnosis of thyroid cancer early last summer and a surgery that left her with a paralyzed vocal cord has hampered her efforts at both.
Camille fell ill with strep throat near the end of her junior year, but a check-up yielded concern on the part of her doctor. Such reactions on the part of care providers aren’t typically welcomed, but Camille took it in stride.
“I would always say it’s either buff neck or I have a tumor,” Camille said.
Sonogram results warranted further action, the surgery, but Camille’s family was buoyed by encouragements from the medical staff.
“They told us it could be cancer, but there’s just a five percent chance, so you just don’t get worried about it,” said Laurie Nelson, Camille mother.
During the surgery, it became clear that cancer had aggressively invaded Camille thyroid and removing it led to complications – a damaged or removed nerve that paralyzed a vocal cord.
“We weren’t prepared for that and it was the biggest shock,” Laurie said.
Concern over the number of tumors prompted the surgeon to halt the surgery and call for it to be completed by a specialist. Camille will go under the knife again to remove the rest of the cancerous tissue Monday, Oct. 24. Fortunately, insurance has covered the family’s medical expenses.
The immobile vocal cord inhibits the range of her voice and ability to form the notes required for singing – a gift that won her the talent section of the Junior Miss scholarship program last year. The new normal is a voice that cannot reach above a certain octave, it’s not quite a rasp and louder than a whisper, but prone to getting lost in background noise. It also makes labored breathing, often a result of the effort she puts out on the soccer field, more difficult. Because the vocal cord doesn’t move, it blocks part of her windpipe.
Her dedication to her two passions persuaded her doctors to push back the surgery as long as possible to accommodate at least part of the soccer season.
Still, she’s not one to give up, as evidenced by her speedy return to the soccer field after surgery. Camille has been a four-year starter for the Celtics.
The defining moment for her soccer coach, Miguel Camarena, came two days after her surgery when Camille joined the team on the field for practices.
Camarena wanted the team to finish with eight sprints. He offered Camille the opportunity to bow out, but she lined up with the team. With two sprints left, she grew frustrated and tears started to flow, but she finished her sprints.
Camarena’s pride in her reaction to the diagnosis and surgery beams, even through an e-mail, “I am so proud of all her commitment, effort and discipline she has devoted to her soccer career. As a student she has a 3.90 GPA and any coach would love to have a player like Camille. She’s the perfect example of a person with integrity, honesty and work ethic and that is priceless.”
She’s played every game since.
“I’m usually a really loud, talkative person. I’m always the one yelling at teammates to pass the ball and they tease me now because I still try to yell, but I just sound ridiculous and no one can hear me anyway,” Camille said.
Her can-do response was also noted by McNary choir director Jim Taylor.
Once part of two choirs, Camille now takes part behind-the-scenes of only one. When Taylor went into a meeting with her about the complications as a result of the surgery he expected a somber and serious conversation.
He was left struck by the amount of humor Camille injected into the discussion.
“She turned around and said, ‘I’ll be a tenor,’” Taylor said. “She’s focused and serious about doing her work, whether academic or performance, at a high level of excellence. And she does it while having fun and sharing that joy with others.”
Camille and her family have been buoyed by prayers and well-wishes of friends and loved ones and they are accepting more all the time. They’ll know more on Monday after the second surgery. It will reveal whether the nerve is still intact, but damaged, or if it was removed in the first surgery.
If it’s only been damaged, there’s a chance it might heal and restore her voice, but in the meantime there have been lessons for all involved.
“I learned Camille can do hard things,” said Laurie. “I’ve only seen her really discouraged one time and after that she was fine. She had just a little bit of sadness and then the next day she was at it again and working hard at school.”
For Camille, the lessons revolve around those two things – soccer and singing – she worked so hard for and now might have to leave behind without regrets.
“Work hard for everything because if you lose it you’re going to wish you worked harder when you had it,” she said.
Which leaves us with Mr. Miller and his big thoughts about precisely what it takes to sing. It takes a mouth, lungs, a bit of musical knowledge, a desire and two working vocal cords. Even more than those, however, it takes a song.
Fortunately, Camille has an unshakable spirit and plenty of time to figure out what her next number will be.