BILLINGS, Mont. — Nobody can say how Bob Lance made his way from Seattle to Billings earlier this year, not even Lance.
When police found him wandering in a borrow pit along Interstate 90 in May, the 80-year-old retired labourer could say hardly anything at all.
“He could say his first name but not consistently,” said Jonalyn Brown, a speech language pathologist at Evergreen Laurel Health and Rehabilitation Center. “He couldn’t tell me where he was from. He couldn’t label objects.”
If not for Brown, Lance’s story might have ended differently and, chances are, less happily.
But Brown, who has worked as a speech pathologist for seven years, took it upon herself to help Lance figure out who he was and where he belonged.
A little bit of detective work and a lot of disjointed conversation later, Brown watched Monday as Lance was reunited with family members who hadn’t heard from him in 20 years or seen him in 40.
“Hiya, sweet cheeks, how are you?” said his younger sister, Pat Lance, as she strode toward him at the Billings airport.
Pat hadn’t talked to her brother since their mother died in 1989.
But she and another sister, Doris Dixon, knew Lance as soon as they saw him waiting at the bottom of the stairs near baggage claim. The sisters said he looks just like their father and another brother, Arthur.
It was Arthur who first learned that Lance had been found disoriented and coatless on a Montana highway in the middle of the night.
Brown called Arthur, 87, at home in Toronto as part of her quest to help Lance find his family. That was after she taught Lance how to talk.
Lance suffers from global aphasia, a condition that impacts his ability to speak and to understand spoken words.
Aphasia often occurs after a stroke but can also result from a head injury or a brain tumour. An MRI at a Billings hospital, where authorities took Lance after picking him up on I-90, revealed bleeding in his brain.
Lance thinks he fell and hit his head in Seattle. He says he remembers going to a medical centre after the fall, but Brown could find no records to confirm that memory.
She did learn that he was hospitalized in Seattle in 2006 after exhibiting stroke-like symptoms. Tests performed then showed that Lance had a small growth on the left side of his brain. It wasn’t cancer, and his symptoms resolved, so he was sent home.
It was probably earlier this year that he fell and lost his ability to communicate, although Brown hasn’t been able to piece together exactly what happened or when.
At some point, Lance decided to head home to Toronto.
He walked and hitchhiked east on I-90, using the few words he could reliably say and simple gestures to communicate with people who stopped to give him rides.
Aphasia essentially disconnects or scrambles the part of the brain that processes language, so even if Lance knew the answer to a question, his brain couldn’t tell his mouth to say it.
Likewise, his ear often couldn’t translate what was being said to him.
“I just, ’Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh,”’ Lance said of how he responded when drivers wanted to talk. “I don’t know what they’re saying.”
For the most part, it didn’t seem to matter. Drivers apparently thought they had found a good listener in Lance.
“Those people seemed to like what they were saying,” he said.
Lance said he doesn’t remember being cold or hungry on the road, although he had only $99 and no jacket when he got to Billings.
“I was having one pop and a hamburger,” he said. “That was my eat for the day.” Although aphasia is not necessarily accompanied by memory loss, it was in Lance’s case. He didn’t know who he was. A Washington state ID card in his pocket provided few clues beyond his name and an address in the Seattle-Tacoma area.
He hadn’t been reported missing in Seattle, where Brown later learned he lived for more than 25 years, and police who visited the address on the ID card learned only that he used to live there. As Brown worked with Lance to restore his speech, she also asked him questions about his life. He began to answer one of them — where are you from? — consistently.
“The lakes,” he said. “The lakes.”
Brown showed him a map of the United States, and Lance pointed to the Great Lakes.
Actually, he pointed above the lakes, which led Brown to show him a map of Canada. When he pointed to Toronto, she typed his last name into an Internet database of Toronto telephone listings and started making phone calls.
Lance’s brother Arthur was the second person she reached.
After listening to Brown for a few moments, he said, “I used to have a brother named Bob.”
“He was our wanderer out of the eight of us,” Lance’s sister Pat said. “We figured eventually we would hear from him or something about him, but we didn’t.”
Lance was born in Michigan but was raised in Canada. He left for the U.S. at age 40 because he wanted adventure. He travelled around working as a labourer until he fell in love with a woman in Seattle and settled down.
Although he remembers how he wooed her, how they lived together and how she got sick and died, Lance cannot remember the woman’s name.
He lost contact with his family after his mother died in 1989, and Brown thinks he became depressed after his love died about 10 years later.