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Video: After oral surgery, woman speaks with accent

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    >>> back now at 8:09 with more of our special series "curious medicine." this morning a woman from oregon who speaks with an english accent . that might not seem so unusual but she says she developed it after undergoing yorl surgery. we'll talk with her in a moment, but first miguel almaguer has her story.

    >> reporter: any conversation with caron butler inevitably leads to the same question.

    >> where are you from. where did you get that accent?

    >> reporter: the answer is new port, oregon , a tiny community outside of portland. in this small beachtown, karen can't even open her mouth before inviting a lot of questions.

    >> you tell them i got it from here.

    >> from here? oregon ? they think i say ireland, but i'm saying oregon .

    >> reporter: karen says her accent has its roots here at her dentist's office. a year and a half ago she underwent oral surgery and was given a sedative.

    >> i was induced to sleep and when i woke up i didn't sound like myself.

    >> reporter: he didn't want to speak on camera but he did confirm when karen woke up, she was speaking differently. listen to karen 's voice on this home video before surgery.

    >> you're filming my dirty house , turn that off.

    >> reporter: this is the karen everyone knew, the familiar wife of a mother, wife, and friend. but when karen came home from surgery, no one could believe their ears.

    >> say ske neck telldy. say supercalifragilistic- expialidocious. it was a lot of fun. even i had fun.

    >> so karen has an extremely unusual neurologic condition that's called foreign accent syndrome .

    >> reporter: this doctor is a neurologist who says the syndrome is triggered by a stroke or trauma to the brain. while he's not examined karen , he's met with her br and says her speefrp may have been altered by yorl surgery.

    >> it's so rare, less than 100 cases ever reported that the average neurologist, even a stroke neurologist, would not see a case in their lifetime.

    >> reporter: karen said for months doctors were baffled by her medical mystery and so was everyone else. even now, a year and a half after the accent, she gets.

    >> that's cool. i wouldn't mind waking up with a cool accent.

    >> reporter: an accent from an ocean away. a new voice that seems to suit caron butler and her family just fine. for "today," miguel almaguer, nbc news, portland.

    >> she's joining us from washington. good morning do you all.

    >> good morning.

    >> so, karen , i think there are people at home who probably find this bizarre and might think she's got to be faking this.

    >> i don't think you could, not for a year and a half.

    >> do you get that all from people? the skepticism.

    >> not really. the most skeptical i've seen is this last week when we were talking to the media when they have to make sure everything is on the up and up.

    >> so what was it like when you had woke up and your voice has changed. that has got to be strange.

    >> i had just had dental surgery . you're sore. your family is making fun of your funny cry and id did not go away. at first you think it's the results of that happening. a week goes by, the swelling goes down, and you're still not talking yourself after a month. then you're looking for answers because you know this is just not normal.

    >> were you worried at any point there might be something seriously wrong with her?

    >> no, no. we've had more fun with this than anything else. her sister came down the first week and she was back on her feet, sat around, drank a cull f of beers and came up with words and terms to see if she could say them. spent a week doing that.

    >> at some point did you ever get diagnosed with this? did you go to a neurologist and get diagnosed?

    >> when i talked to my doctor and he said, well, there's nothing wrong with you, and there isn't. no loss of motor skills , no problem with my eyes, no facial facial --

    >> ticks or anything like that.

    >> right. i'm a-okay.

    >> yeah.

    >> all in your head.

    >> so it's not just that your voice has a different accent. are you changing word patterns at all too or is it just in the words?

    >> my sister thinks i've changed my pattern of speech. but i think it's tinted with this other side.

    >> the other side. i want to bring in dr. nancy here. what do we know about foreign accent syndrome ? obviously it's very rare it.

    >> is very rare. less than a hundred cases over the globe. that's what makes it really difficult. it really becomes a diagnosis of exclusion. you have to rule out brain tumors or strokes or any recent brain injury . and if you listen very carefully as i've been listening to the accent, you can't say, oh, i can tell you're from county cork or dublin. it's an imprecise change to english, so there's a change in cadence, a change in the way the syllables are enunciated. so it becomes sort of an atypical pickup of an accident that rather is sort of untypeable. my only word of caution is i think this is the perfect case to get an absolutely confirmed diagnosis and that means neurologists, radiologists, get the right scans, see a speech pathologist and really make sure that there's nothing else going on. and then if that's okay, then, you know, e-mail perfectly willing to live with this diagnosis.

    >> can she get her original voice back or karen says this one seems to work for her now so let it be.

    >> there are reports that people have it gradually go away. other cases go back hundreds of years where we really don't know what the resolution was. i think in this situation it's going be watchful waiting a. but i would hope it would be watchful waiting under the guise of a really good language and speech pathologist who can watch the changes. do it under a professional's watch.

    >> i get the sense you don't want to. you're having a bit of fun with this, right?

    >> it's been a -- it's like a new toy, and that's what we play with. like i said, we've had it for a year and a half. and it's like a chameleon voice. whatever pops out pops out. you can't make it be something that it isn't. you can pretend to have a southern drawl or talk like john wayne , and i can't. very simply. whatever pops out of my mouth pops up.

    >> my director john michaels thinks it's irish. can you say guinness. thank you very much.

By
TODAY contributor
updated 5/5/2011 10:20:50 AM ET 2011-05-05T14:20:50

When she went under the oral surgeon’s knife 18 months ago, Karen Butler sounded like any other lifelong resident of coastal Oregon. But when she shook off the anesthesia, the 56-year-old mother of five suddenly found herself speaking with a strange new accent — an odd mixture of Irish, Scottish and northern British, with perhaps a dash of Australian and South African for good measure.

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“It’s like a chameleon voice,” Butler told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Thursday. “And I can’t make it be something that it isn’t. You can pretend to have a southern drawl and talk like John Wayne; I can’t.

“Whatever pops out of my mouth is what pops out.”

Rare condition
Though she has not undergone a full battery of neurological tests, Butler, by all appearances, is suffering a rare disorder called foreign accent syndrome. The condition affects only about 100 people worldwide.

Related: Brain injury gives woman a foreign accent

Foreign accent syndrome is usually brought on, experts say, by a stroke, a brain injury or, in some cases, a tumor. But none of those seem to be a factor in Butler’s case: Preliminary tests, she said, showed that she had no other signs of brain injury.

“When I talked to my doctor, he said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’ ” Butler told Vieira. “No loss of motor skills, no problem with my eyes.”

Video: Women bond over foreign-accent syndrome

Butler said her strange symptoms developed immediately after her oral surgery. At first she thought she was just groggy and swollen, and that the strange and oddly amusing speech pattern would fade with time.

“I had just had dental surgery,” she told Vieira. “You’re waking up, and your family’s making fun of your new, funny voice; at first, you think it’s just a result of that happening.”

But then, she added, “A week goes by, the swelling goes down and … after a month … you’re looking for answers, because you know that this is just not normal.”

Related: Oregon woman wakes from surgery with British accent

Fun factor
Although the malady may be permanent, Butler and her husband, Glen, are not only taking it in stride — they’re actually enjoying it.

“We’ve had more fun with this than anything else,” Glen Butler said. “Her sister came down the first weekend she was back on her feet, sat around, drank a couple of beers, and came up with terms and words to see if she could say them. [We] spent a weekend doing that.”

Video: After oral surgery, woman speaks with accent (on this page)

There are skeptics, of course; a few people who suspect that Butler, who now speaks like a bit like Nanny McPhee, is faking.

“I don’t think you could, not for a year and a half,” she told Vieira. And those wary voices have been few and far between, she added: “The most skepticism I’ve seen has been in the past week with the media — they wanted to make sure that I was on the up and up.”

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Butler’s case is ripe for further documentation, TODAY medical consultant Dr. Nancy Snyderman told Vieira. “I think this is the perfect case to get an absolutely confirmed diagnosis, and that means neurologists, radiologists to get the right scan — see a speech pathologist and really make sure that there’s nothing else going on.”

Related: What iz zees? Head bonk causes foreign accent

And while little is understood about foreign accent syndrome, if that’s what Butler has, there is a chance her speech patterns may someday return to normal on their own, Snyderman said.

“There are reports that people have this gradually go away,” she said. “I think for [the Butlers’] situation it’s going to be watchful waiting, but watchful waiting under the guide of a very good speech pathologist who can watch the changes … recording her voice, documenting the changes and really doing it under a professional’s watch.”

But for now, Butler is in no hurry to see her distinctive accent altered. In fact, she sort of enjoys it the way it is.

“It’s just like a new toy,” she said.


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