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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hitchhiking mystery man's identity solved

Aug 27, 2009 04:30 AM

Staff Reporter

The 80-year-old was wandering in a ditch beside the I-90 in Montana, bleeding in his brain and incoherent to the young police officer who had pulled over to ask where he was going.

It turned out Bob Lance was not a vagrant, nor a drunk, nor on the run, but seemed to be hitchhiking across America with some determination, on his way back to his family in Brampton.

Lance, who suffered a bad fall in the spring, thought he was dying.

But he happened to be suffering from global aphasia, which obliterates the ability to speak or comprehend language and was, in this case, accompanied by memory loss.

When he was found in May, Lance was unable to recognize, or consistently say, his first name, answer simple questions or understand his environment.

It took two weeks before Jonalyn Brown, a speech pathologist at a rehab clinic in Laurel, Mont., found out why a man who grew up in Toronto had state identification from Washington – he started his voyage in Seattle – and was in a ditch in Montana.

"He was on his way to Toronto," Brown said, noting a bad fall in the spring may have induced stroke-like symptoms and convinced him he did not have much longer to live.

"He was worried that after the fall, he was going to die," she added. "He didn't know what was going to happen. He was 80, he didn't know how much time he had left, and he wanted to get to his family."

And so he fled Seattle, where he lived with someone who Brown said was "using" him, and took to the open road, as in his youth.

He ended up in that ditch and then in Brown's rehab centre, muttering about a tourist attraction, which she later discovered was Niagara Falls, and pointing to Canada.

"Once he was able to speak more, just little pieces, every session a little bit more information would come out about something to do with his past," Brown continued.

"It was almost like a puzzle. He was a big, huge puzzle that I wanted to help him put back together, because I knew he was so determined to tell me and I knew something important was in there."

Eventually, Brown – who worked with the cheery patient for 90 minutes each day, five days a week, from June 4 until his return to the GTA this week – began to click Lance's life together, piece by piece, until a portrait of his former self began to emerge from the man's disjointed memories.

The life that emerged was one of an adventurer, travelling America working as a labourer, wooing a woman and watching her pass away, living in Seattle and spending every day in the library, apparently working on seven separate books. After his fall, it was a Seattle librarian who reminded him of his name.

He had to be likewise prompted about other information, such as the city he grew up in and where his family still lived (Toronto) and the names of his siblings.

Lance flew to Toronto on Tuesday.

"Hitchhiking on the I-90, it's pretty wild," Lance's nephew, Michael, told the Star. "It's hard to wrap my head around that, an 80-year-old, a guy that old, thumbin', hitchhiking, you know? He was always a character, for sure."

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