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Freak fish accident robs girl's voice

The Sickles High School junior, stabbed by a houndfish, can only whisper. She will need weeks of speech therapy.

It's not that Stephanie Mittler doesn't want to talk about the freak accident that could have killed her. It's that talking about anything is a struggle.

Stephanie is the 17-year-old Sickles High School junior who was stabbed in the neck by a sharp-nosed houndfish while snorkeling at Big Pine Key.

Now she faces weeks of speech therapy and maybe more surgery to improve her faltering voice.

"The left side of her vocal cords are paralyzed, and she has nerve damage," said Stephanie's mother, Laura Mittler. "They want to do speech therapy to get her to speak in a way that would make her voice louder. But her voice was soft before this happened."

Stephanie was standing in chest-deep water when a houndfish flew out of the water and stabbed her in the neck with its spearlike nose. The fish's barbed bill broke off in her neck and had to be surgically removed.

The doctor who operated on Stephanie said the wound was perilously close to her carotid artery. Remarkably, after spending several days in a Marathon hospital, Stephanie returned from spring break and never missed a day of school.

She had plenty of motivation; with perfect attendance, Stephanie was able to be exempt from three final exams.

But school is where Stephanie found her impairment most debilitating.

"I don't talk as much because people can't hear me," Stephanie said. The problem is more pronounced between classes, when the high school halls fill with chattering teenagers. That time, when students are free to gossip and talk, is all but lost now on Stephanie.

"I don't even talk to anybody in the hall, it's so loud," Stephanie said. "It's like I'm just moving my lips."

The 6-inch scar that runs from her left ear down toward her collarbone has healed to a faint line mostly hidden by her shoulder-length blonde hair. It still itches some, Stephanie said, but it is the only visible reminder of her ordeal.

Stephanie's summer plans include work at a local TJ Maxx store and spending time with her across-the-street friend Maria, an exchange student from Brazil.

"I think she'll learn to use her eyes more effectively," her mother said. "And I've found sometimes you can get people to listen better if you whisper."

Though she speaks in soft, high-pitched whisper, Stephanie has done several-dozen media interviews since her accident and handles questions with confidence.

Laura Mittler said she hasn't received all of the hospital and doctors' bills yet and is concerned that what her insurance doesn't cover could eat into the family's budget. But Sickles High School officials have offered support and may hold some fundraising events, she said.

But she's just thankful that Stephanie, one of five children in the family, is back on track.

"This was a real ordeal," Laura Mittler said. "She's very, very lucky. It was really a serious injury, even though it sounds kind of funny."

_ A version of this story ran in a regional edition of the St. Petersburg Times.

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