The day started like every other day. I was the opening lead for the Disneyland Monorail, so it started early; 6 am as I look back at my calendar. It was a crisp early December morning, the kind in Southern California that make you think that just maybe, this year will be an actual winter. It never is.
The night before I had felt like I was getting an earache, and it hadn’t really improved by morning. If anything it had gotten worse. By 8 am I was experiencing considerable pain in my right ear. I called my doctor’s office as soon as they opened, and was able to get in at 9 am. I left work early.
On my way out, I ran into a friend. We hugged and laughed for a minute, and as I walked away I smiled. That’s not interesting, I smile all the time; it covers my insecurities. But this time was different. This time the left side of my face…spasmed. Like when your leg cramps up in the middle of the night. The left side of my face pulled. Hard. My smile stopped.
I walked to my car and drove to the doctors. I checked my rear view mirror a couple of times. Everything was working just fine. Everything seemed normal. My doctor walked into the room. She said that my ear looked slightly inflamed. That it could be deeper in the ear canal than she could see. That perhaps the spasm I had experienced was caused by the infection. How right she was.
I left the doctor’s office not feeling much better, but at least with a prescription for antibiotics. As I drove home I listened to an episode of the Nerdist podcast. It is a funny podcast, and I laughed. It happened again. I looked in the mirror, and still nothing. I walked in the door at home. Looked in the mirror in the bathroom. “Maybe…nah, just tricks of the light.” I asked my wife, “Do you notice anything about my face? Is it…behaving?” I tried to not sound as freaked out as I felt. She said it seemed like maybe the right side was swollen.
By 2 pm, I was noticing a distinct lessening of my ability to use the right side of my face. I had started at 4 to get my doctor to call me, I had lost hope by 5 pm. By 5 pm I was ready to use the word that I had been trying to avoid. Paralyzed.
The next day I walked into the doctor’s office at opening. I walked up to the counter and told the receptionist that I needed to see the doctor immediately. She said that they were pretty booked today and that I could make an appointment for another day. Then I said, “Well, my face seems to be paralyzed, so perhaps she wants to change her diagnosis from yesterday.” Then I squinted. Like the picture. Except it was several hours later and it looked more like this:
There were no wrinkles on my right side. My lip stayed horizontal. My eye was barely shut. The receptionist inhaled sharply, pushed her chair back from the desk, and said, “Head on back.” Thank you.
My doctor walked in shortly. Same room as yesterday. Same ridiculous posters on the wall. Totally different feeling. She explained that she assumed it was just swelling from the ear infection. That perhaps it was deep in the ear canal and that it was causing a reaction in the face. But looking at me now, she was changing her diagnosis. She looked in my ear, had me try a couple of movements. Then asked me a couple of questions. The end result: Bell’s Palsy.
Bell’s Palsy is medically defined as a form of facial paralysis resulting from dysfunction of Cranial Nerve VII, or the facial nerve. This causes the inability to control the facial muscles on the affected side. Bell’s Palsy is technically diagnosed by exclusion; if we get rid of everything else, it’s probably Bell’s Palsy.
At the time, studies had believed that there was a link between Bell’s Palsy and the Herpes Simplex virus. So a round of antivirals and some prednisone, an anti-inflammatory steroid, was ordered. It was also decided that I may as well finish the antibiotic I had started for the ear infection. (note, Those studies have since been called into question. The actual cause of Bell’s remains unknown.)
So, let’s sum up where we are in our story: I can’t move the right side of my face, I am on a cocktail of drugs that do not like my digestive system, and I am learning a host of things I never knew about the human body. For example, do you know what
the facial nerve controls? Because I do. Intimately. The VII Cranial Nerve controls:
- forehead movement
- nostril flaring
- and, (this was particularly surprising) taste in the rear 2/3 of the tongue
It got really weird over the next few days. It also got really depressing. I was too embarrassed to go to work. I wasn’t able to blink. I had to manually close my right eyelid and then I could keep it closed. But then I could hear a low rumble in my right ear as my muscles fought to hold it there. Eating was difficult. Drinking was next to impossible. So, I did what any self-respecting guy would do; I went home to my mother.
Really we went up for the Vine St. Showcase, a Christmastime tradition in my hometown. We went originally to see family and friends, enjoy the beginning of the holiday season, and to see our dogs. But for me, it was a chance to get away and try to escape what life had become. It had been 4 days, and it was only getting worse.
I had spent a lot of time looking up information about the condition I was now living with. I found that almost every study agreed that the sooner you regained movement, the higher your chances of making a full recovery. The magic number seemed to be two weeks.
The race was on. 10 days and counting.
Click here for Part 2.