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American woman wakes from surgery with British accent

A year and a half ago, native Oregonian Karen Butler was sedated for dental surgery. When she awoke, she had an odd, thick accent — and she’s been speaking that way ever since. “It’s like a chameleon voice,” she said Thursday.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

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.

“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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.