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Brain injury gives local mom a “foreign” accent

THE SEATTLE TIMES- At the hospital, all the doctors and nurses asked her the same questions: Where are you from?

Port Angeles, she said. 

No — we mean, where were you born?

Well — Crescent City, California.

But you have an accent.

That’s why I’m here.

After a serious accident in 1981, life had become fairly normal for CindyLou Romberg, a caregiver and motorcycle enthusiast living in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. All that changed last year, when out of nowhere, she began talking like someone who’d grown up on the European continent.

Ever since, Romberg, 51, who has never studied a foreign language or been to any other country but Canada, has spoken in markedly accented English that sounds to some like German, French or Russian. On the phone, she’s had to convince family and friends of her identity; in person, she’s stopped trying to convince strangers who find her accent adorable that she’s not from elsewhere.

Her diagnosis: A rare condition called Foreign Accent Syndrome, one that’s landed her on tonight’s episode of “Mystery ER, ” a medical reality program on the Discovery Health Channel.

“Mother Nature can do some strange things,” says Glenn, her husband of 22 years.

Romberg’s speech changes without warning. Sometimes, all she can do is gesture for that dish she wants from the cupboard. Other times, pure babble pours from her mouth, confusing her grandkids. (“Nana, we don’t speak your language,” her 5-year-old grandson has said.) Once, at a diner stop during a charity bike run, she rattled off something that sounded Swedish.

Though it’s been frustrating and scary at times, Romberg, is doing OK. “I am very good, yah,” she says.

In 1981, Romberg, then in her 20s, fell out of a moving Toyota and hit the pavement, splitting her head from front to back.

For months afterward, she suffered terrible headaches; and for years, she addressed her lingering back pain by occasionally seeing a chiropractor. She found one she liked in Puyallup. “Things were really good,” she says.

One day last year, her back was bothering her, and she decided to go to a local chiropractor instead. He tried an adjustment, then tried it again. But something wasn’t right. That night, her neck swelled up.

By the next day, a Friday, the swelling had subsided. Then, that night, she went downstairs to talk to her daughter, and all that came out was gibberish.

Over the weekend, she visited a series of urgent-care physicians. One thought she had a migraine. Another thought she’d had a stroke. On Monday, her primary-care doctor sent her straight to Seattle.

Doctors still weren’t sure what was wrong. She got an MRI and a CT scan; they thought she had a collapsed blood vessel in her neck. Surgery told them otherwise.

Eventually, her speech returned, but “she wasn’t CindyLou,” Glenn says. She sounded like she’d come from Berlin.

Finally, a doctor at Harborview told her: I think you have Foreign Accent Syndrome.

The first widely recognized case of Foreign Accent Syndrome, or FAS, involved a Norwegian woman struck by a piece of shrapnel during World War II. Afterward, she emerged with what sounded like a German accent and, given the times, was shunned by her community.

Only 50 or 60 cases have been verified worldwide, depending on whom you ask. Diagnosis is by process of elimination. “There’s no ironclad test,” says Jack Ryalls, an expert on neurologically based speech disorders at the University of Central Florida.

Typically, neurological damage — generally in the brain’s left hemisphere — is followed by the inability to use words properly or at all, then a gradual return of speech, albeit altered. Most cases develop within one or two years of the original injury, making Romberg’s case unusual.

While some researchers claim curative success using speech therapy, he says, “A person has to have some degree of conscious control” for it to work, and most victims seem not to. The few who regain their normal voices just do so with time, he says.

Our voices are part of our identities, which is why some victims of FAS are so devastated. Other people just shrug their shoulders, count their blessings and move on. The only evidence of Romberg’s former self is on her cellphone, where a bright, melodic voice asks callers to leave a message.

She does not recognize her new voice, seemingly an octave lower. And at first, neither did anyone else.

Faraway friends would call the house and hang up, thinking they had the wrong number. One suspected identity theft and was ready to call the police. One day she answered the phone. It was her niece, Kayla. “… Is my aunt CindyLou there?” Kayla said.

“I said, `It’s me.’ She said, `Ohhh-kay… . What is Uncle Glenn doing?’ I could tell she did not believe me.”

Others called her mother, Joann Vedin, asking what was wrong with CindyLou. (“She talks funny,” they’d say.)

Some things she still can’t say. H’s are difficult. Occasionally, her voice is slurred and stuttered. “You do n-not kn-know when it will haah-happen,” she’ll say. Some words emerge differently: “Heard” becomes “heared.” “Garage” is “GARE-ej.”

Some names just won’t come at all: She calls Phyllis, her sister, but the word that comes out is “Sheba.” Equally inexplicable, the word that comes out when she addresses daughter Sadrianna is something like “Pakka.”

In time, people began to find the whole thing a novelty, as if her accent were some chunk of asteroid fallen from the sky. “My mum’s friends thought it was the coolest thing that ever happened,” she says. Ultimately, she was enlisted to record the greeting on her mother’s answering machine.

But at times, the situation leaves her a little verklempt. She’ll have something to say, and suddenly the words aren’t there. “My mum” — she used to say mom — “will call after I’ve left a message,” she says, “and Glenn will answer and say, ‘Sorry, she’s got no English tonight.’ “

Glenn Romberg says it’s as if his wife’s brain short-circuited, and researcher Ryalls says that explanation isn’t far off. He thinks the syndrome could be a recovery stage, the brain’s way of compensating for lost function. A rewiring, in a sense.

What sounds like a foreign accent isn’t, really, though it may be indistinguishable from one. It’s a voice impairment we aren’t used to hearing, so we associate it with what it most sounds like.

Romberg doesn’t blame the chiropractor. It’s not, she points out, as if he’d said, “I’m going to crack your neck today and make you talk French.”

Still, “she’s a different CindyLou than she was before,” her mother says. “She doesn’t know what it’s going to develop into, whatever’s happening to her. It kind of scares her, and I don’t blame her.”

But with three siblings already passed away, Romberg considers herself lucky. “The human body is amazing and can do absolutely phenomenal things when it needs to,” she says.

In the meantime, she sometimes calls herself on her cellphone, just to hear the person she knew for 40-plus years. “That’s the only thing I have,” she says. “I used to really like my voice. I thought it was sassy and sexy. And it is no more.”

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