On the morning of Aug. 11, I woke up to find the right side of my face was paralyzed. This discovery wasn’t immediate. I checked email, returned a work-related phone call and then went into the kitchen to make a smoothie. It’s when I took a drink and half the smoothie ran down my chin that I realized something was wrong.
I went into the bathroom to look in the mirror and upon first glance, nothing seemed amiss. Then I opened my mouth – or tried to. Both my upper and bottom lip were paralyzed, which meant I couldn’t smile. I also noticed that I was no longer able to raise my right eyebrow. When I closed my eyes, the right eyelid wouldn’t close tightly nor would it blink, and even my nose seemed slightly off kilter. I thought I’d had a stroke overnight and went into panic mode.
I called one of my best friends, Donna, who happens to be a nurse, and she encouraged me to go directly to the hospital. My friend Karen, who lives a few minutes away, also urged to me get to the emergency room and offered to leave work and drive me. My mother was the first to suggest that it might be Bell’s Palsy, since both my father and one of my aunts had been afflicted with it. Since I wasn’t in any pain, didn’t feel dizzy or ill, I drove myself up the street to Atlanta Medical Center.
Upon entering the ER and showing them my face paralysis, they instantly whisked me back to an examination room and hooked up an EKG. In just a couple of hours, I would have both a CAT scan and MRI (I’m not claustrophobic, but I can see how that machine freaks people out). Then there was a couple of hours of waiting around for the results, a consultation with a neurologist, who ruled out a stroke, and finally getting the diagnosis that it was indeed Bell’s Palsy. Maybe. “It looks like Bell’s Palsy,” was what the ER doctor said and wrote prescriptions for a round of antivirals and steroids, the only medication known to help Bell’s Palsy. Maybe.
If you’re wondering why all the maybes, it’s because not very much is known about Bell’s Palsy other than it’s a swelling of the facial nerve (also known as the seventh cranial nerve) that might be caused by a strain of the herpes virus or by the virus that causes chicken pox. Pregnant women and those with diabetes also seem more prone to Bell’s Palsy, but they don’t know why. While most cases of Bell’s Palsy correct themselves anywhere from three weeks to three months – or maybe six – sometimes there is lingering paralysis. The doctor also warned that my facial paralysis might become worse before it got better. He was right.
A few days later, the right side of my face looked like a melted candle. My mouth was constantly dry, as were my eyes. My nose felt stuffed up and I had slurred speech. Drinking without a straw was impossible; more food seemed to wind up on my shirt than in my mouth. I didn’t leave my house except for quick errands and doctor appointments for a few weeks.
Three months later, I am almost recovered, but not quite. My lower lip is still a little frozen and while my right eye closes and blinks, it still won’t close tightly. My doctor says this will eventually return to normal – or it might not. It’s maddening how little is known about Bell’s Palsy. Both Angelina Jolie and George Clooney have had bouts of Bell’s, so you’d think there would be foundation or telethon to raise funds for ongoing research into prevention and cure. Maybe Sarah McLachlan could sing a heartrending cover of The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” while holding a rescued puppy for the television campaign?