The Daily Press
Central Pa. woman winds up with Jamaican accent after surgery
Her accent seems so authentic that strangers have asked what part of Jamaica she’s from.
But Kirsten Keys has no connection to Jamaica. And the lifelong Harrisburg resident had no unusual accent until after knee replacement surgery.
Yet twice after surgery she has awakened sounding like a native of that Caribbean nation - most recently following her second knee replacement in November.
As nurses talked with her as she emerged from anesthesia, she heard shocked reactions of “this is not the person we put to sleep.” Each time, it began with a stutter and evolved into an accent.
After the first instance, her speech returned to normal after about four months.
This time, going on three months later, Keys still sounds distinctly different than she did before the surgery.
While there is in fact a medical condition known as “foreign accent syndrome,” that condition is linked to brain trauma and tests indicated Keys did not suffer a stroke or any other neurological event. Instead, doctors say a reaction to anesthesia and stress are likely to blame.
The startling accent poses job-related challenges for the 57-yearold spokeswoman for Harrisburg School District. As the voice of a large school district in an economically- and socially-distressed community, she has her share of delicate, tense conversations with the community and news media.
It demands she speak carefully and accurately, using words and tone that convey understanding and, hopefully, minimize potential for misunderstanding.
It doesn’t help when the words that leave her mouth sound foreign compared to the voice in her head.
The first time it happened, in 2020, allowed her some cover — schools were closed because of COVID-19 and Keys, like many people, was working from home, with minimal spoken interaction.
This time is different. Keys was able to keep a low profile for a while, using texts and emails and interacting mostly with a small group of colleagues.
But she says it weighed on her, for reasons including a high priority she puts on spoken communication, going so far as to personally record “robocall” messages rather than use an automated voice.
Heading into a recent school board meeting streamed to the public, Keys decided it was time to face her fears. She planned to stick to prepared remarks and avoid discussing her speech and medical situation.
But as she spoke and watched faces, she saw shock, bewilderment and concern for her well-being. She knew the only course was transparency.
“I wanted them to know it’s OK. I’m still here to serve you. I’m still here to provide you with great customer service and high-quality communications and messaging. It’s just that my voice is a little bit different, that’s all,” Keys says.
Doctors say foreign language syndrome changes speech resulting from the injury to the part of the brain responsible for speech - are extremely rare, with only about 100 known cases in more than a century.
A neurologist at UPMC, where Keys had both knee replacements, dismissed foreign accent syndrome because neurological tests showed Keys suffered no stroke or hemorrhage or injury to her brain.
Dr. Dominic Hickey says the changes to her speech are the result of factors including how her brain reacts to anesthesia and the stress of surgery.
“She’s currently working with a speech therapist and improving daily, which is encouraging, and it would appear she’ll make a full recovery as she did before,” Hickey says.
Keys opted for full anesthesia during both knee replacements, even though knee replacements are now commonly done with a level of anesthesia that leaves a patient semi-conscious but unable to feel pain.
Because of the changes to her voice following her first knee replacement, her doctor suggested she choose the lesser level of anesthesia. But Keys was uncomfortable with the idea of undergoing a knee replacement while partially awake, and opted for the stronger anesthesia.
She believes it was *the right choice and she has no regrets or complaints regarding the care she received from UPMC, which she calls “first-rate.”
Meanwhile, she’s thankful her knee is fine and she feels no difference in her ability to think or choose words.
Keys believes the event sheds light on the importance of having well-informed, collaborative relationships with healthcare providers.
She and her husband, Thomas, who is a pastor, further believe it offers lessons on the importance of patience and understanding toward people affected by a medical condition or disability.
The couple has used her condition as a teaching opportunity for their grandchildren, who were younger and more alarmed by her first episode, but are now able to grasp larger lessons.
“Whether it’s me or somebody else they see disabled, as a family, we’re able to instill in our grandchildren to be kind and patient and understanding,” she says.