Unintentional frown knocks WIS reporter off the air

Mary King during her battle with Bell's Palsy.
Mary King during her battle with Bell's Palsy.
Mary King gets her smile back.
Mary King gets her smile back.

COLUMBIA (WIS) - The morning of June 1st started off like any other, but I could have never imagined that a few hours after I left the WIS studios that Friday the right side of my face would become paralyzed.

I was sitting on an airplane in Charlotte when I first noticed I couldn't rub my lips together. After realizing the whole right side of my face was motionless, I notified a flight attendant.

The pilot took the plane back to the gate where I was met by a medic team. My dad met me at the airport and rushed me to the hospital where we met my mom. My fears that I might be having a stroke were replaced by two words, Bell's Palsy.

While I never made it to my destination that night, I embarked on a whole new journey. It was now impossible for me to smile, and I wanted to understand what it was that caused things to change drastically, so quickly.

Looking back to the early morning of the first, I had noticed a sharp pain in the back of my head. I also noted that anything I ate was tasteless. Doctors at the hospital said those signs were the onset of my symptoms.

It was approximately twelve hours from when I first noticed the pain and the loss of taste to when the right side of my face become paralyzed. Neurologist Dr. David Hammett of the Columbia Medical Group says that's fairly normal with Bell's Palsy.

"The progression of all of the symptoms tends to be over hours to days which is a rapid onset," said Dr. Hammett.

I learned that deep inside my brain, my 7th cranial nerve was inflamed. Doctors cannot pinpoint what causes the inflammation, but say it can be brought on by a variety of factors including stress, lack of sleep, a weakened immune system and an array of viruses.

"The facial nerve becomes inflamed and then it stops functioning," said Dr. Hammett. "Without signals from the nerve all of the muscles go weak or are paralyzed on one side of the face."

Doctor Hammett says that anyone who has had the chicken pox virus could be at risk for having a Bell's Palsy attack at some point in their lives. The Varicella Zoster virus (which is the same virus that causes shingles) lives in the nerves and stays dormant. An outside factor then causes the virus to be reactivated.

While much of the disease is a mystery, doctors do know that its effects can last several weeks to several months and in rare cases, never change.

"Because it is so dramatic and this is a population of patients that is generally healthy, life is very much affected by this very sudden change," said Dr. Hammett.

Doctor Hammett says just 30 people out of every 100,000 have a Bell's Palsy attack in the U.S. each year. That estimate is just a little higher than the one provided by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. According to their website only 30,000-40,000 Americans have a Bell's Palsy attack in a year. "It's so dramatic that it kind of makes an impression on us, and it may seem even more common because of that," adds Dr. Hammett.

By day 7 of my attack, my symptoms had not changed much. I still could not blink or close my right eye, and I had to sleep with an eye-patch to keep it shut. Doctors say this is necessary because if the eye dries out it can damage the cornea. I was also still taking steroids and anti-virals which I had been on from the beginning.

"It's extremely important to get to the physician quickly if the treatment is going to work," said Dr. Hammett. He adds that if medication is started within three days of the first symptoms there seems to be a greater chance that recovery time can be shortened.

Doctor Hammett says there's really nothing you can do to ward off the onset of an attack, but there is something you can do during it. "I think what's more important than anything else is to maintain hope and believe that it is going to get better," said Dr. Hammett.

While I'm not a doctor, I know that Doctor Hammett is completely right. Hope is truly key to recovery. While going through Bell's Palsy, it can be depressing to look in a mirror or to want to be in public. With no idea when your face may recover, if ever, it can be hard to look at the bright side of things.

I think it was when I went to pick up my wedding gown with my mom that I had a breakthrough. All I wanted to do was smile, but I felt so embarrassed to even look in the mirror as I tried on the gown. I began to explain to the women at the store that I had Bell's Palsy and I couldn't smile, and one of the ladies replied, "You are smiling, you're smiling with your eyes." Perspective is everything.

By day 11, I noticed that I could move my eyebrow slightly and the right side of my mouth would curl up.

When I woke up on day 15, I could crack a smile for the first time. Now, I don't think I ever want to stop smiling! It was more than two weeks of hope, medication, family and friends, patience, many prayers and the Good Lord that finally turned my unintentional frown upside down.

As I hear stories of those who have also experienced Bell's Palsy, I'm inspired. Hope seems to be the common theme throughout. Recovery time seems different for everyone, and sadly I've heard of many cases where people have never recovered. Doctor Hammett says if recovery stalls there are surgical options that can help to reset the A-symmetry of the face. However, for those who have to consider walking that road, I know it's nothing short of devastating.

Doctor Hammett says while it is rare, once you have Bell's Palsy, you're at a greater chance of having it again. That being said, if you ever see me and I'm not smiling, remind me of this story. In an instant life can change and be very different from how we know it. So when you get a still moment in the middle of a busy day, don't forget to take just a second and whether it's with your mouth or your eyes, smile.

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