But as days became weeks, I started each morning with a cry. Bell’s palsy had come on dramatically, overnight, and I thought maybe it would be gone overnight as well. Then I’d try to smile and realize I had at least one more day of paralysis. I compared myself with the “before” Lonnae and wondered if she was ever coming back. I wondered if maybe I would be one of the 15 percent whose faces would never fully come back. Usually after a few minutes, I’d dry my tears and spend a little time in the mirror practicing my new, enigmatic Mona Lisa half-smile. (Informed speculation has it that Mona Lisa may have had Bell’s palsy, though once you have it, you suspect it in everyone with a funny smile.)
“Ninety percent of our patients come in, and their biggest complaint is they can’t smile,” says Jodi Barth, regional director at the National Rehabilitation Hospital clinic in Rockville and a physical therapist for 30 years who has worked with Bell’s palsy patients for more than a decade. “It’s devastating.” She and her colleague Gincy Stezar each see 11 patients a day, and 80 percent of them have Bell’s palsy. Our faces are agents of personality and communication, and some patients, says Barth, have come in so self-conscious that they’ve worn scarves around their faces or wanted to be seen in private rooms.
Though the precise cause is unknown, Barth says a majority of her patients report experiencing “massive stress” before their Bell’s palsy onset. Her theory: Stressed people clench and overuse muscles around the jaw joint, increasing pressure in the area. I had been dealing with difficult personal and professional issues and had been awakening with my jaws aching, and for me, that explanation felt exactly right.
Cheers all around
I’d seen an urgent-care doctor, my primary-care physician (who ruled out Lyme disease) and a neurologist, and they’d all said the same thing: My case was mild, and I’d probably improve in four to six weeks, which made me feel better. But it was in the NRH waiting room, with other patients just like me, that I felt most hopeful. Family and friends had been great, but none of them could fully understand how alone and afraid I felt. Barth saw me for the first time and said, “You’re doing beautifully,” and I was nearly overcome with emotion.
Inside NRH’s large therapy room I saw a woman blow out a candle for the first time in eight years, and a 15-year-old, who’d come down with Bell’s palsy when she was 12, show off the whistle she’d just gotten back six months ago. And everyone cheered. We cheered over the reappearance of wrinkles and dimples, and every small lift of a brow.