Constable: Downers Grove voice doctor helps people who can't burp (they really need to)
An accomplished laryngology specialist, Dr. Robert W. Bastian of Downers Grove earned his reputation performing revolutionary voice-restoring microsurgeries on opera singers and pop stars. But his latest accomplishment has made the 67-year-old doctor a star on Reddit, TikTok and YouTube, wins him fan letters from happy patients, and has lured people from 46 states and seven foreign countries to get his revolutionary treatment.
"I help people burp," says Bastian, who explains it all for free on his laryngopedia.com website. "Because of laryngopedia, I get inquiries from all over."
An innovative doctor who founded Bastian Voice Institute in 2003, Bastian routinely makes "best doctor" lists and won the American Academy of Otolaryngology's Head and Neck Surgery Honor Award in 1995 and that organization's Distinguished Service Award in 2010.
While burping often is seen as a laughing matter (as evidenced by another Reddit entry that features long, loud and humorous burpers), Bastian's #NoBurp Reddit has more than 14,000 members and explains how the inability to burp can be an agonizing health problem that ruins lives.
"I had never heard of the disorder," says Bastian, who first diagnosed the problem after a Texas man reached out to the Bastian Voice Institute five years ago because of the doctor's groundbreaking work diagnosing and treating swallowing issues and a disorder he labeled sensory neuropathic cough stenosis.
Bastian not only developed the diagnosis of retrograde cricopharyngeus dysfunction, or R-CPD, but he also discovered that he could fix the man's problem by delivering a shot of Botox to the upper sphincter in the esophagus, just below the Adam's apple. "When you swallow, it opens for a split second and then it clamps shut," he says of the valve. If it doesn't open when gas builds up below that sphincter, that becomes a problem. The Botox makes the valve relax enough to allow trapped air to escape through the mouth with a burp.
People who can't burp often have gurgling noises, which can be very loud; experience chest and abdominal pressure and bloating, which can cause pain and distention; and excessive flatulence, which can be socially crippling.
"It's a terrible condition. I've had a few in tears. They don't feel well -- ever. It absolutely wrecks their social life," says Bastian. He and his staff -- Dr. Brent E. Richardson, Dr. Rebecca C. Hoesli and physician assistant Melissa L. Wingo -- have performed 492 of these procedures, which is usually done by going through the mouth during anesthesia to deliver the shot but can be done with a needle through the neck.
"People thought I was freaking nuts when I told them I couldn't burp," says Vanessa Wyderski, a 30-year-old Wilmington, Illinois woman who gave birth to son Jacob Jr. a month before she got the treatment in January. She had been uncomfortable and made gurgling noises her husband called "dragon whelps" before she got the treatment. "Within a week I had my first real burp," she says.
Many doctors don't consider R-CPD when looking for a diagnosis.
"I was looking for an answer from doctors for 10 years before I realized it was related to burping. It seems like something so silly; you don't realize it's so important," says Cate Fortenbacher, 30, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, who got the treatment two weeks ago. "I started burping two days later. I've been feeling great."
The Botox wears off after a few months, but 80% of Bastian's patients report they don't revert to their non-burping days.
"It's almost like Botox works as training wheels for burping," Bastian says. Once patients learn how to burp, that sphincter continues to open and close when needed. Some patients do require a second treatment.
"It's life-changing," Bastian says, reading through dozens of follow-up reports from patients across the nation and as far away as Turkey, Finland and Scotland. He has treated patients ages 9 through 65, many of whom have never been able to burp.
"At the end of every day, I look absolutely pregnant," said one woman, whose abdominal photo confirms that. After the treatment, she looked as skinny as if she'd had a weight-loss surgery.
Bastian says people with R-CPD often avoid eating or drinking in public, or avoid social gatherings completely. "One woman told me, 'I'm scanning my surroundings to think where I can go to pass gas,'" he says.
Bastian's work on R-CPD has been printed in peer-reviewed articles, and he says he gets inquiries from doctors around the globe. "I'm not a Rambo, shoot-from-the-hip kind of person," Bastian says, acknowledging that he'd like to see more research done on R-CPD. But he's happy with the success he's had and the gratitude he gets from patients who say their lives have improved because he gave them the ability to burp.
At the start of his career, when he was a chief resident in otolaryngology at Washington University Hospitals in St. Louis, Bastian treated people with head and neck cancers. A performer who studied singing with some notable teachers, Bastian became the doctor for radio legend Paul Harvey and scores of singers from the Lyric Opera of Chicago during his years with Loyola University School of Medicine.
"Now," Bastian says. "I'm ending my career helping people burp."