Imagine waking up and finding that half of your face was frozen in place.
October 26, 2010, is a date that radically changed my life forever. It was my mother’s 80th birthday and I planned a big party for her in Mexico. We had lots of wonderful food. I made arrangements for a mariachi band to sing her favorite romantic ballads or boleros and I ordered 80 red roses to adorn her living and dining rooms. Everything was perfect.
On the morning of my mother’s birthday, I woke up feeling thrilled at making my mom’s day very special. I got out of bed and went into the kitchen to get a glass of water. I took a sip and the water spilled out of my mouth. I laughed, as I thought I was being clumsy. I was just woozy with excitement about the party.
I took a second sip and again I spit the water out of my mouth. I went into the bathroom and I looked at my face. My left eye was swollen. This had happened to me before when I was bitten by a spider and my eye became quite swollen. I thought to myself, “not today, on my mom’s party.” I had no other choice but to put on some dark sunglasses and go the morning mass that we had organized in honor of my mom’s birthday.
The party was executed as planned. We had my mom’s long-term friends at her home and a young mariachi lead vocalist had all the ladies at the party swooning as he sang every romantic ballad in honor of my mom.
I decided to lie down since I was still not feeling well. Soon after, I went next door to talk to my mom’s neighbor who is a doctor. She took my blood pressure—it was high. Never in my life had I had an elevated reading. I got scared. I started thinking the worst. I thought I had a stroke in my sleep. The doctor said to me quite calmly, “We need to control your pressure first. Let us have you go to the pharmacist to get the right medication.”
My mom’s friends kept the news of my condition a secret to her so that she could enjoy her party. That night I went to three doctors who were all willing to see me after-hours. Imagine that happening in the United States?
I flew back to the U.S. the next day where I could not be seen by my primary doctor for another three weeks. It took six weeks before I could get a CAT scan and the best medication that could be prescribed to me as a means of treating what the doctors initially thought was Lyme disease was not a part of the approved formulary with my insurance company. When I told the doctor I already had been taking that medication as a post-exposure prophylactic treatment in Mexico, the doctor just shook his head and said, “Keep taking the medicine.”
When I finally saw my primary care physician, I was officially diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy; a paralysis of the face which impacts about 40,000 people in the United States each year. Most people recover from the paralysis within a week to 10 days and the vast majority endure the facial nerve disorder for no more than three weeks. I am one of the less than one percent who has permanent facial paralysis. My eye can’t be shut completely; my ear drum, nasal passages, and saliva glands are also partially paralyzed. My case is extreme.
I have gone through physical therapy and I continue to receive painful injections as a means of controlling the facial spasms that are even more painful in my neck and eye area. As as man, I have had to cope with a new understanding of what it means to live with a condition that will impact my life forever.
I have learned to become appreciative of the smallest of things in my life as a result of my lifelong physical challenge. I have learned to cope. I can’t volunteer to help blow up balloons to decorate for a party—so instead I use helium. I can’t whistle along to my favorite Disney tune–Whistle While You Work. Instead, I hum along to the Lion King soundtrack.
I have learned to appreciate the sincerity of a smile. I can’t smile. I appreciate uninterrupted sleep. I can’t sleep comfortably. I am not afraid of crying at movies even if I have to use artificial tears.
For every man reading these words, I offer the following advice. Become informed about Bell’s Palsy and the resources that exist for treatment options. Learn to appreciate the smallest of feats. For example, share your affection with your loved ones more often, don’t be afraid to whistle in public to show your happiness, and when you feel like crying—do so without reservations. No iceberg—no life challenge—should keep your life frozen.
Previously published on Talking About Men’s Health