Published: Jan 20, 2011 10:04 PM EST
Updated: Jan 20, 2011 7:04 PM EST

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - A 52-year-old woman whose natural voice could have been silenced forever because of vocal cord damage has been able to speak again after undergoing a rare voice box transplant, doctors said Thursday.

Brenda Charett Jensen, 52, reunited with the international team of surgeons who performed the transplant last October. Thursday's appearance was her first in public since having the surgery last October.

 Doctors say Jensen is only the second recipient of a successful larynx transplant in the United States.

Jensen damaged her vocal cords more than a decade ago after she repeatedly pulled out her breathing tube while under sedation in the hospital.

 Before the transplant, the Modesto woman "talked" with the help of a hand-held device that sounds like an electronic voice, but always yearned to speak with her natural voice.

The operation lasted 18 hours over two days. Doctors replaced her voice box, windpipe and thyroid gland with that of a donor who died in an accident. The surgery was led by doctors at the University of California-Davis Medical Center and included experts from England and Sweden.

The team spent almost two years training for the operation, practicing their skills using animals and human cadavers.

Two weeks after the transplant, Jensen voiced her first words in a hoarse tone: "Good morning" followed by "I wanna go home" and "You guys are amazing" to her doctors.

Jensen has since been able to speak more easily, according to her doctors. She still breathes with the help of a tracheotomy tube and is relearning how to swallow. It'll take some time before she can eat normally again.

The university paid for much of Jensen's hospital-related expenses, which were not immediately disclosed. Doctors and staff donated their time.

Not all patients who lose their voice are eligible for a voice box transplant. It's still considered experimental, and recipients have to take anti-rejection drugs the rest of their lives. Jensen was a good fit because she was already taking the drugs after a kidney-pancreas transplant in 2006, doctors said.

Unlike life-saving heart or liver transplants, people can live many years without a voice box, though a transplant would improve their quality of life. There haven't been many voice box transplants because they're not covered by private or government insurance, said Dr. Gerald Berke of the UCLA Head and Neck Clinic, who had no role in Jensen's care.

 In 1998, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic performed the world's first successful larynx transplant, restoring the voice of Timothy Heidler after a motorcycle accident.

Three years later, Heidler was speaking with a perfectly normal voice, his surgeon wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)