A Texas woman was shocked to wake up from hernia surgery to find that her southern accent had been replaced by a thick Russian accent.
Abby Fender, 39, has struggled with identity issues since the bizarre symptom and is now forced to lie about where she’s from to avoid awkward conversations.
Doctors, stunned at first, eventually diagnosed Mrs. Fender with a rare condition known as Foreign Accent Syndrome.
Some type of brain damage usually causes the speech disorder due to a traumatic brain injury, stroke, aneurysm, or a central nervous system disorder called multiple sclerosis. In some cases, no underlying cause is identified.
After speech therapy to improve her new ‘Russian Minnie Mouse voice’, Ms. Fender is faced with a new problem: she has now developed an Australian accent.
Medical experts who have worked with Ms. Fender have diagnosed her with the rare Foreign Accent Syndrome
After the surgery, Ms. Fender was shocked to find that her singing was ‘paralyzed’ and her Texan accent had disappeared
Ms Fender, a professional singer, said: ‘I woke up from my surgery and immediately knew something was very wrong with my voice as I couldn’t speak at any volume.
“Soon I started feeling the pitch of my voice really, really high and we called it the ‘Russian Minnie Mouse voice’ where I sounded like a cartoon character all the time.”
Foreign accent syndrome has puzzled neurologists and speech experts since it was first described in the early 20th century.
People usually develop accents over time as a result of the sound patterns in their local slang, which is an unconscious process.
Since 1907, only about 100 cases of FAS have been diagnosed. Some cases have made headlines in recent years for their peculiarity.
Last month, DailyMail.com revealed that a man in North Carolina developed a heavy Irish accent after cancer surgery — despite never visiting the country.
Most of the 100 or so cases reported since 1907 resulted from damage to the speech center of the brain, Broca’s area.
Located on the frontal lobe, this area is crucial to a person’s ability to articulate ideas and use words accurately in spoken and written language.
The condition is seen more often in women than in men and patients usually develop FAS as a result of stroke.
It can also develop as a result of developmental or psychological disorders, trauma, or tumors.
Cases of FAS can include changes in the way people pronounce words, their syntax and vocabulary, as well as changes in vowel length and tenseness.
Some people with FAS may have difficulty with sounds that involve tapping their tongue behind the top front teeth, such as “t” or “d”. Some have difficulty pronouncing clusters of sounds such as STR in words such as “slapped.”
No incidence of brain injury has been reported in the case of Ms. Fender. More recently, her accent has switched to Australian.
She described the great impact of this condition on her daily life, in which she was often asked about her strange and inexplicable accent.
She said, “I don’t want to lie about where I’m from, but sometimes I do because it’s easier. Every time I do this I feel like I’m denying who I really am and that’s not a good feeling, but I get asked at least 10 times a day, “Where are you from?”
“I remember one time I said I was Ukrainian and the other person started talking to me in his native language. I had no idea what to do so I had to confess, but before the current war this was never a problem because no one asked questions.
“This isn’t that easy, so I try to avoid saying where I’m from and instead tell them what kind of accent they hear.”
Ms. Fender underwent a series of tests to determine the neurological underpinnings of her condition, including MRIs and CT scans, but the attempts were unsuccessful.
Her singing voice, which she had honed since she was eleven, also suffered. She said she couldn’t maintain the same pitch she had before surgery and had changed her tone.
There is a small risk of injury to the spine and nerves with surgery to repair a herniated disc. The most common complication, occurring in about one percent to seven percent, is a dural tear. It happens when the thin layer over the spinal cord or meninges is scored by the surgical instrument.
However, it’s unclear whether Ms. Fender suffered a dural tear or some other serious complication from her surgery that could explain the accent. She suspected that a complication during the procedure affected the Broca part of her brain, “but we’ll never know.”
A speech pathologist helped Ms. Fender regain her singing voice and relax her neck muscles enough to slip into her natural speaking voice.
She said, “I couldn’t believe it because it was a miracle to hear my own voice again.”
“It was like coming home after a really long journey, but this wasn’t going to last, because only by using certain techniques, like blowing bubbles in a bottle of water with a straw, will I get my old accent back.”
Despite the great progress she has made with her speech therapy, Mrs. Fender still falls back into an accent. Lately she said she spoke with an Australian accent.
She added, “I’m starting to feel good about everything, but of course my most recent change has brought unexpected feelings of fear and embarrassment. I don’t like not being in control or knowing how I’m going to sound.
“It’s very scary.”
What is Foreign Accent Syndrome?
Foreign Accent Syndrome is a rare condition in which the patient speaks with a different accent than their natural speaking style.
It is usually the result of head or brain injury, with strokes being the most common cause.
FAS can also occur after trauma to the brain, bleeding in the brain, a brain tumor, or multiple sclerosis.
It has been recorded only 100 times since its discovery in 1907.
It causes patients to pronounce vowels in different ways, move their tongue and jaw differently while speaking to produce a different sound, and even replace words with others they don’t normally use.
Foreign Accent Syndrome can last for months or years, or even be permanent.