The Daily Press

Central Pa. woman winds up with Jamaican accent after surgery

- By David Wenner

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.

 ?? Photo by Sean Simmers ?? Kirsten Keys underwent knee replacemen­t surgery in November and woke up with a foreign accent. It may sound bizarre, but it’s true, possibly involving a rare medical condition called foreign accent syndrome.
Photo by Sean Simmers Kirsten Keys underwent knee replacemen­t surgery in November and woke up with a foreign accent. It may sound bizarre, but it’s true, possibly involving a rare medical condition called foreign accent syndrome.

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