IT is easy to see why many people mistake Cindy Hastings for a foreigner.
She rolls her r’s, sometimes omits the ending of words – even her striking blue eyes and blonde hair suggest the influence of European descent.
But Ms Hastings is a fourth generation Australian. And has never even been to Europe.
The 48-year-old Bonny Hills mum is the only known sufferer of Foreign Accent Syndrome (FAS) in Australia.
Ms Hastings’ speech impediment, also called dysprosody, is the result of an acquired brain injury.
The rare condition disrupts speech function in such a way listeners perceive sufferers to have a foreign accent.
On a Saturday night in June last year, Ms Hastings had what doctors now believe to be, a “breakthrough” seizure.
They recommended she change her anti-convulsion medicine. But this caused a dramatic deterioration of Ms Hastings’s health. In the space of three weeks, she lost all ability to speak.
“I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I had lots of side symptoms to the point where I couldn’t really move much from the chair,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything.”
Ms Hastings soon was weaned off the medication, which doctors later discovered she was allergic to. During this time, her accent evolved.
“In my mind, I still hear and see the way I want to say things,” Ms Hastings said. “From here to here, there is breakdown, is delayed,” she said touching the back of her head and then her mouth.
“To choose the right word and sequence is effort.”
Loosing her ability to communicate effectively, shook Ms Hasting’s world to the core.
Her condition isolated her from the things she loved most. Her job, her friends and – to an extent – even her family.
“I got to a stage where I stopped talking because it was too difficult for them,” she said. “I could see their frustration.”
Ms Hastings saids her partner of 14 years, David Suters, could practically make a cup of tea before she could string a sentence together.
“It hurt him to see me so unwell, but he took it in his stride and it’s brought us closer,” she said .
Their nine-year-old daughter, Kahlee, struggled to come to terms with her mother’s condition.
“It got to a stage where she got very angry,” Ms Hastings said. “She didn’t understand why Mum was so sick. It was very emotional time.”
Years ago, the Port News photographed Ms Hastings to celebrate her remarkable achievement as an internationally recognised Master Resume Writer.
The only remnants of her employment solutions business now are tucked away in the living room corner.
“This lounge room is not an office anymore,” Ms Hastings says laughing. “The day I packed it up it really broke me. It hurt a lot. But our lives evolve, they are different now.”
From humble beginnings in administration, Ms Hastings forged a professional career in everything from human resources to adult learning. At one stage she progressed to an organisation that supported more than 3000 staff.
A motor vehicle accident and a broken neck meant Ms Hastings had to look for other options.
As a passionate believer in life-long learning, she continued to study, gaining certification as a career practitioner.
Eight years ago, she took a leap of faith and began her Employment Choice Career Transition Centre in the Hastings. It is a business that transformed the lives of many.
“Every day it was about helping people and making a difference,” Ms Hastings said. “People who lost their jobs, or were told they were made redundant, or don’t come in Monday type of thing ...
“By the end of their time with me, it was like the light went back on in their eyes and they could stand tall again. They were back on their own two feet. That to me was my focus everyday,” she said.
Losing her business was devastating for Ms Hastings, and disconnection with the wider community also took its toll.
Ms Hastings felt she had become an alien in her own country.
People assume she is foreign, that she is slow because the words don’t come out as fast, or in the way they expect.
“I am horrified that in Australia today, the way I have been treated because of my sound,” she said. “I’ve been spoken down to, I’ve been hung up on because they think I’m a telemarketer, I’ve not been able to get past the receptionist to speak to a friend I have known for years.”
Sitting on the other side of the fence has been a big part of dealing with her condition, she said. It has given her an empathetic understanding of those who suffer because of their background, or simply because of their inability to communicate as society expects them to.
It is hard to imagine the confident, outspoken woman has been through so much. A broken back, a brain tumour in 2006, and now a terribly isolating and rare disease.
But Ms Hastings is a fighter and is taking on life’s latest challenge with her head held high.
“This is my third life change from medical condition,” she said. “I think, well, I’ve done it before, I can do it again.”
Her strength and determination is quite simply, inspiring. There is a long road ahead. But slowly Ms Hastings is regaining some of her independence and coming to terms with her condition.
As for ways to pass the time she says laughing: “I have my chair.” And, much to her dismay, she has been forced to make friends with her television set.
“I detest that. It’s a waste of time. But I love documentaries and real life stories very much, true things that allow you to see what’s happening in the world.”
She recently drove again for the first time and these little accomplishments help her keep going.
“Laugh is the only way to cope now,” she said. “Not at me, but trying to take the seriousness out of sadness, and using humour to cope.”
Ms Hastings has learnt the importance of stopping and taking the time to listen. To understand, to look past our preconceptions of brain injury and the relationship between mental alertness and someone’s ability to communicate. She hopes others will learn the same from her story.
“They are still there, people who have stroke or mental illness, on the inside.”
Ms Hastings may never know what exactly triggered her condition.
“It’s one of those things we don’t know. We just don’t know. I’m the type of person, I don’t look back. I can’t change it.
“Look forward, what can you do today and what can you do tomorrow.”
Ms Hastings and Mr Suters are engaged to be married next weekend. After everything they have been through it seems like a fairytale ending to a tumultuous time.
“It just feels right,” Ms Hastings says. “I think it’s part of this next step, of a new life.”