Medical Mystery Robs Voice-Over Artist of His Voice, but He Finds Magic Pill in Ambien

Photo: Ryan Gratzer/Flickr.

Until two years ago, Tom Rohe was one of the top commercial voice-over guys in the business. He had worked on commercials for Nissan, the Miami Dolphins, and Walt Disney World. But a wisdom tooth extraction on Nov. 30, 2009, was the beginning of the end for his career and the start of a bizarre medical mystery.

Shortly after the surgery, Rohe — who performed under the theatrical name of Tom Cassidy — noticed a clicking in his jaw. He was diagnosed with temporomandibular joint disorder, better known as TMJ, but that was just the first of his problems. Soon, his voice began to slur. People asked him if he had had a stroke. He hadn't. He began to lose clients.

His voice continued to decline, and by July 2010 it was so impaired that he could no longer do voice-over work, and in fact could barely speak. His lips and part of his tongue had became almost completely numb. Rohe posted this video of his impaired speech on Dec. 9:

"This has been something that has changed my life significantly," Rohe told MNN. "I've had to examine who I am if I no longer have a voice. It's forced me to look at the meaning of life and being in ways that I never did before."

Rohe has seen a long list of doctors, TMJ specialists, physical therapists, speech therapists, psychiatrists and other professionals, but no one has been able to diagnose what's causing his medical problems.

But one day, something strange happened. Rohe had been taking Ambien for sleeplessness and he noticed an unexpected side effect. "I was up late with my girlfriend watching TV," he says. "I said something to her and suddenly said 'I CAN SPEAK!' Then I started singing and doing voices. I was so excited it was like a miracle event. I couldn't believe it."

The dramatic effect of the Ambien on his system can be seen in this second video, which he posted on Dec. 11:

Rohe takes a much smaller dose of Ambien to help his speech than he does when trying to sleep (5 milligrams compared to 12.5 mg), and its effect only lasts for a few hours. He says he only takes that dosage during the day, usually on the weekends, because it still makes him slightly drowsy — enough to prevent him from driving or using any other machinery ("expect maybe filling the dishwasher," he jokes).

While he finds that he can speak after taking Ambien, it isn't enough for him to return to work. "The times that I can speak are too late at night, but also the speech pattern is less controlled," he says. "My 'thing' was having the ability to do all styles of voices and tones and characters. With the Ambien effect I can speak again, but just not with that controlled professional sound."

Although the medical establishment has not yet been able to help him, and some doctors have acted as if they did not believe him, Rohe hopes that a doctor who understands his condition might come across his videos. "Hopefully, by telling my story I'll find a physician or group who might say...'Hey we can help this guy!'"

With that in mind, MNN showed the video to several medical experts. Most would not comment without seeing the patient, but Lawrence N. Wallace, a California-based consultant in oral and maxillofacial surgery for major medical insurance companies, watched it with great interest. "There's a lot of missing information," he said first, pointing out that he does not know Rohe's medical history or what other medications he is taking. But he theorized that perhaps Rohe's mandible is dislocated and is sticking open in a dislocated position. "He might be having muscle spasms from some other source, and the Ambien allows him to relax enough that the muscle spasms stop and he can speak normally."

In the meantime, Rohe is learning American Sign Language to help him communicate. "I can say 'My name Tom. I have a dog name Buzzy.' The future's wide open."

Also on MNN: