Dr. Moss is a Pulmonary and Critical Care Physician at the Mayo Clinic Florida. He sat down with the Stuttering Foundation to discuss his many life and career successes along his lifelong journey with stuttering.
SFA: Do you remember when you first began to stutter?
JOHN: I am told I began to stutter at the age of three. I remember always stuttering through grade school, high school, and college.
Does it run in your family? Who else stutters?
Yes, my uncle and cousin are both stutterers. My mother stuttered as a child but outgrew it.
Did you seek treatment? Did it help?
My parents first sought treatment when I was in kindergarten; unfortunately, they were told I would just grow out of it, which I never did. I was not in speech therapy again until I was an eighth-grader, but I don’t think I got much out of it as my therapist seemed to work more with little kids and gave me the same exercises as the younger children, which I didn’t like. I really got the best therapy during high school with my speech therapist, Cinda Gibson, whom I worked with for four years. She taught me a lot of techniques to help me get out of a “block” and help me build my confidence. We are still friends and remain in touch to this day.
Tell us about your experience with stuttering as a child.
My experience being a stutterer as a child was very difficult. I remember avoiding speaking out in class and reading aloud; presentations in front of a classroom were horrifying. My grade school basketball coach made me plug my ears with my fingers because he thought if I couldn’t hear myself talk, that it would help. It didn’t. My presentations in high school were awful. I could barely get a word out, block after block. My presentations always went over the allotted time, and I was sweating and shaking my legs. This caused me to be an introvert, to not be very social, and probably to not be as outgoing as I could have been. It was difficult. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Has your stuttering gotten worse or better since you were younger? How?
My stuttering got a lot better during and after medical school. I was forced to communicate. My confidence built up. I only really notice my stuttering now if I’m really tired or super nervous, but that is rare. I don't hear it much, but I know if I listen to a recording of myself, I can still hear it easily. I’m not sure how much others pick up on it. I can talk on the phone now with no issues, which was unthinkable during high school and college.
How did it affect you growing up?
I had a good childhood, but the little things you take for granted were harder. I was shy. I avoided speaking to strangers. Simple things like ordering food in a restaurant were a challenge. I used to point to the item I wanted instead of saying the word and hoped the waitstaff didn't stand too far from me to see. My stutter made dating harder as a teenager.
How does stuttering affect you in your career?
Now, very little. I became more fluent during medical school and now I never really block. Giving lectures in front of a crowd has become routine for me. I think the key is confidence, practice, and controlling your anxiety and fear. As you do a task more and more, it becomes easier. When I couldn’t talk on the phone, I forced myself to do it instead of avoiding it. As I am more confident in the material I’m lecturing about and have done more lectures, it has become easier. At least annually now, I give a lecture in front of a conference room of over one hundred people, and it doesn’t make me nervous anymore. I used to lie in bed the night before, dreading it and dreaming about it. I never really think about it anymore.
How is your stuttering today? What do you do to control or manage it, if anything?
Again, my stuttering is almost negligible, but it is still present when I’m tired or over-stressed. Sometimes I feel a block when ordering from a drive-thru speaker, but not often. I don’t really do exercises or speech therapy anymore to control it, but I have to talk all the time. I think using your voice and being confident in what you are saying is the key as well as not worrying about what others will say or do. Usually, my mind made this worse than it was.
What is your greatest accomplishment with regard to stuttering?
Just being able to say I beat it. To realize it can be beaten. I’d like to go back to my old high school and give a talk to my classmates at a reunion, to show it can be accomplished. I wonder how many of them still remember me as the stuttering kid. I’d like to break that view and show them I now work at the world’s best medical facility.
I once was told by a medical school professor that I had to be super-specialized or no one would take me seriously with my stutter. I’m happy to say he was wrong. I think I am respected in what I do, and I never let his criticism get to me. In fact, it motivated me to prove him wrong.
What are the biggest challenges stuttering has presented to you?
I was a smart kid, but oral presentations were hard. Getting a job where you had to talk on the phone was hard. I remember hearing a phone ring and walking away, wanting someone else to answer it, so I got busy doing something else. Dating wasn’t always easy, but most of the girls I dated didn't seem to mind. My wife never really mentions it. Sometimes when I feel a block coming, she does put a hand on my back to remind me to take my time and slow down.
Based upon your experiences, what would you like to tell children who stutter?
You are not alone. All those feelings of anxiety, worry, stress, I felt them too. The key is to know that you are strong, you are smart, and with practice, your speech can improve. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t accomplish your goals. I’m a doctor at Mayo Clinic, and a stutterer is the President of the United States. Nothing is impossible.
Based upon your experiences, what would you tell parents of children who stutter?
First of all, love your children. They are scared and often embarrassed. Tell them every day how proud you are of them. Seek help early with a speech therapist. It is never too early. Don’t let anyone just tell them that they will grow out of it; maybe they will, but what if they don’t? Be supportive of your child’s dreams; stuttering should never hold them back. Help them build self-confidence. And as painful as it is, challenge them to practice the things that are hard for them.
What else should we know?
I’d just like to thank my speech therapist for four years, Cinda Gibson. Her advice, encouragement, weekly sessions, and now friendship means the world to me.
Location: I am from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and now live in Jacksonville, Florida.
Profession: I am a Pulmonary and Critical Care Physician at the Mayo Clinic in Florida.
Family: I have been married to my wife Kelsey for 14 years. We have two children, Joseph (4) and Alexandra (1).
Hobbies and Interests: Fishing, boating, playing with my children, outside work, and travel.
Successes: I went through 4 years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school, three years of internal medicine residency, then three years of pulmonary/critical care fellowship. I’ve been at Mayo Clinic since medical school, now for a total of almost 15 years. I split my time between the critical care department and the pulmonary medicine clinic.
From the Fall 2021 Magazine