An American woman has revealed how she developed a strong Australian or New Zealand accent after a road traffic accident left her in a coma for two weeks, despite having never been to either country.
Summer Diaz, 24, from Los Angeles, California, was hit by an SUV as she crossed a road on November 25 last year, which caused her to develop foreign accent syndrome — a rare condition where damage to the brain makes someone speak with differently.
"I don’t remember anything about that day," Summer told Jam Press.
"I came home from my job working with children who have autism. I didn’t have a parking space at my apartment so I had parked elsewhere and was walking across the street.
"I don’t know what happened but apparently I was halfway across the crosswalk and I was hit by the SUV."
The driver called for help and Summer was rushed to the nearest hospital, where they discovered she had suffered a host of injuries including a broken pelvis, broken shoulder and a brain injury.
She spent two weeks in an induced coma, and as it was during the pandemic, her family and boyfriend weren’t even able to visit regularly.
When she woke up, she was very disoriented and confused.
"I could hear people saying 'you’re at the hospital, Summer'," she said.
"They asked me to say the alphabet and I knew quite a bit of sign language, so I signed it. I could not speak vocally when I woke up.
"I was able to do the whole thing and the staff actually asked my parents if I was deaf because of the sign language.
"My parents said no but I did know how to sign from taking classes in university."
'I pulled out my tubes'
As Summer slowly started to talk again, one of the things she picked up on was changes to the way she was speaking but initially thought it was just due to being intubated while she was in a coma.
"I pulled out my tubes when I woke up causing some damage. Due to this I also have a condition called dysphagia, making swallowing difficult," she said.
"I remember trying to speak to people and my voice sounded different.
"Then my boyfriend got special permission to visit me and he has an accent as he is from England.
"He was talking to me and I felt like I was enunciating quite a bit and that it sounded different, but he said he couldn’t quite hear it.
"Then I went to rehab and my voice started to get a bit better. I was working with speech therapists but I was still speaking quite slowly, so it was hard to hear anything.
"As my voice got stronger people started to hear the accent more."
As Summer was talking more and more, people would question where she was from as she didn’t have an American accent.
"My nurses would come in and say 'where are you from?' and wouldn’t believe me when I said 'I’m from here'," she said.
"I would explain I was born here but they would say 'but you have an accent'.
"I had to explain that it wasn’t my accent and I just started doing it."
'It's settled on Australian or New Zealand'
Throughout her recovery, Summer has gone through a range of accents, with some lasting just a few hours and others staying for months.
"I had a very British accent, close to my boyfriend’s for a while. I had a French one at one point and briefly, I was Russian,"
"At the minute, it’s settled on an Australian or New Zealand accent."
Summer has never even been to Australia or New Zealand but frequently people assume she was born or grew up there.
"I went back to the fire station to meet the people who brought me to hospital the other day and give them cake," she said.
"I saw the fire chief and I could tell on the phone he had an accent, but when I met him, he said 'is that an Australian or New Zealand accent?'
"I explained it was New Zealand but he asked where I was from and I had to say I’m from here and he laughed.
"One thing that was hard for me was figuring out how to answer back when people ask about the accent.
"Do I go with where they think I am from or tell them the truth and get into talking about a whole incident with a stranger?"
Summer hopes to keep foreign accent syndrome
Although it is a little unusual, Summer actually really loves having foreign accent syndrome.
"If I get hit by a car but get to the keep the accent, I’m ok with that - that's the best part. That's fun," she said.
"I was always texting my friends telling them I really want to keep it because I really like accents."
After spending around a month in hospital and rehab, Summer was well enough to return home and was able to go back to university to finish the four classes required to complete her degree in psychology, while continuing with outpatient treatment.
This allowed her to access the university library to research more about her condition, which helped her officially get a diagnosis with an MRI on August 9.
There isn’t much treatment available and for some people, it does eventually go away but Summer is happy to wait and see what happens.
'I almost died'
Now, almost a year on from the accident, Summer’s accent is still far from what it was like before and her traumatic brain injury has caused a permanent disability.
"I'm exhausted often. I am left with a lifelong disability. I cannot work long hours at work, my stamina is poor, and I cannot do simple everyday activities," she said.
"I rely on a cane when my leg aches and a wheelchair for long distances or for areas where I would have to be standing for a long period of time.
"I have a caregiver that helps me with my regular household chores and meal prepping. Every task requires energy and if I am too exhausted I cannot perform some tasks later on in the day or the next day.
"Certain things will improve over time but other things will remain the same."
As well as the physical side of her injury, the accent has had an impact on her work caring for children with autism.
"I often pronounce my name as sum-mah and sometimes they hear it as So-Mah. I have had kids be confused if my accent switches the next day, so much to the point where they have asked where the other Summer went as they don't quite understand my condition," she said.
"Learning how to navigate with a disability in the workplace has been a bit tricky for me.
"While this has had many downsides, it has caused my health to be more of a priority to me.
"I almost died so I try to enjoy the things I want to enjoy and be kind to others. I appreciate art and books more and enjoy the company of my loved ones more.
"I see the accent and what happened as something that will always be a conversation starter and a story to tell."
Laura Abernethy/Jam Press/Australscope
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