Thursday, March 03, 2005


In Which the Super-Villain Gains A Super Power...

Come with me now. Let us turn back the hands of time, to a date 14 days before our protagonist has suffered what he believes to be a stroke that has caused hideous paralysis on the left side of his face.

It is two weeks prior. Our protagonist is in the throes of a spectacular, but not especially memorable, bout of the flu. His body does its level best to expel the invader from every available orifice, and in that regard, it mostly succeeds.

Except...this virus has an interesting side effect. For reasons not yet known to science, it has caused a special immune response in the brain of the Magazine Man. His brain is a scary place, and we dare not linger here long. Just long enough to note a specific nerve, a nerve that controls a very specific group of muscles. When the body fends off an invading pathogen, inflammation is one of the weapons the body uses. Normally, this swelling, while uncomfortable, has no lasting effect after the virus is gone. Today and over the next two weeks, the inflammation will cause that specific nerve to swell (or the surrounding tissues to swell), compressing it, pinching it off. The electrical impulses that travel down it flicker and fade. Eventually, the nerve dies.

And with it goes all muscle control on the left side of the Magazine Man's face.

The condition is known as Bell's Palsy. It affects as many as 40,000 Americans every year, and is well known enough that most medical staff are trained to diagnosis it by having the patient perform a series of exercises, including whistling, smiling and furrowing one's brow. But it is apparently rare enough that when someone comes in with the symptoms, every student in the hospital will gather in the exam room to witness the bizarre medical oddity.

Hence the medical team that had assembled when I was admitted. Not to help me, but to watch the freak perform. And the asshole doctor examining me treated me like a cadaver, lecturing to the students about all the fascinating hallmarks of Bell's palsy, without bothering to fill me in on some details I would have found interesting--comforting even--in the moment.

Such as the fact that my eye hurt because no muscle control meant my eyelid couldn't close or blink properly, so tears couldn't lubricate the eye.

Such as the fact that the swelling that pinched the nerve off was causing the deep visceral pain I was feeling.

Such as the fact that my ear hurt because no muscle control meant that the tiny muscle in my ear--the one that automatically controls sound levels and protects the ear drum--wasn't working, so everything was REALLY LOUD on that side. Did I mention it hurt?

Such as the fact--and this is a big one--that despite a scary, permanent-sounding word like "palsy"--Bell's palsy is by and large a temporary condition. That in younger patients (including me), the nerve simply regenerates after the swelling goes down and eventually you're back to normal. But in the mean time, you have to be careful eating, because no muscle control means your lips and inner cheek can't move out of the way of your teeth as nimbly as they otherwise might, so you end up biting yourself A LOT. You have to protect your ear so that excess sound doesn't damage your hearing. And you have to put lubricating goop in your eye to prevent it from drying and ulcerating. Sometimes this necessitates bandaging your eye shut and wearing a cool eye patch, which I was more than willing to do.

Her Lovely Self was thinking ahead however. Six weeks ahead, to be exact.

"Um, how long does the paralysis last?" she asked.

The asshole doctor says, "Not long. Generally three months. But no more than six. Unless it's permanent, which can happen. And of course, there's always the chance it could be a brain tumor. If symptoms worsen, you may want to schedule an MRI through your regular doctor."

To show you where our priorities were, I spent the drive back home fiddling with my eye patch and thinking, Tumor? I might have a tumor?

And HLS was thinking: My wedding pictures. I'm going to be marrying either Two-Face or The Pirate Groom. Arrrrrrr!

Sure enough, just as the doctor predicted, the left side of my face eventually began twitching like a science experiment. The massive, gaping bite marks on my lip and inner cheek slowly healed over. I no longer needed a drool cup, nor the goopy eye medication that turned my world into a hazy film special effect. And it only took until, oh, about a month after our wedding for things to return to normal.

Of course there were some regrets along the way.

Our formal wedding pictures were a complete disaster. Thank God no one looks at the groom in these events. Thank God I married someone whose natural beauty makes it easy to overlook me, standing next to her. Because in the wedding pictures, I look like hell. After several at-home experiments in front of a camera, HLS determined it would best if I simply didn't try to smile at all. Not just for pictures, but anytime at all during the wedding and reception. Because when I tried, my face contorted into a hideous, super-villain sneer that caused children to cry and old ladies to gasp involuntarily and hurry across the street. As a result, in every photo, you see me looking slightly cock-eyed (one eye not fully closed--I was forced to abandon the eye patch) and tight-lipped. The overall effect of this expression is that you find yourself looking in the background to see who's got the shotgun jammed into my back.

Which is a unfortunate, because it was of course one of the happiest days of my life. But you'd never know. I wanted to make an announcement to the congregation that I was really, really happy inside, but this goddamn facial nerve was on the fritz. But of course that would have been Too Much Information. As a result, there was lots of murmuring at the reception, friends wondering to each other (but not to me) what was wrong, was I mad, had we had a fight, was there some late-breaking scandal?

And I knew what they were saying because I could hear every word.

That was the one interesting benefit of the Bell's palsy (aside from the eye patch): I had super-hearing in my left ear. Because the muscles in my ear were not working to muffle sound, I could hear things I had never heard before. When I mentioned this to my doctor, he thought I was crazy. Yes, loud sounds close by were sheer agony, but I could also hear subtler stuff. My boss in the next hall. Talking behind a closed door. In my apartment building, I could hear when the dryer in the basement--two floors down--had turned off, and so knew when to run down and do my laundry. People talking in cars sitting next to me at the traffic light (at least til they gunned the engine and practically killed me). It was amazing, and the experience gave me a new appreciation for background sounds that I carry with me to this day.

But I was, it must be said, supremely uncomfortable for the first month of my condition. I had never realized how much I took for granted in regards to involuntary nerve and muscle function, how miserable one could become when just a handful of muscles and, really, just one frigging nerve, went on the fritz. And of course I spent a long period in deep mortification over my reaction to the situation. I've always subscribed to the notion that, if you're going to react to something, you might as well overreact. But this had gone too far. How did people with REAL disability cope? What if it had been a real stroke or worse? I hope I never have to find out.

That's what I think about when I have a really bad week like this.

But I DO miss the super-hearing.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Man, you're really good-humored about this, which is a good lesson. I'd probably hold a grudge against fate for the rest of my life.
I don't think you overreacted at all. I would have been a lot worse, you know how vain we women can be. Oh, and I definitely would have clocked that Doctor, what a dumbass!
Certainly a reality check memory to hold on to.
Funny how you don't realize how lucky you are. My son has ADHD, he's 14 and sometimes it's such a bitch to deal with.
My younger cousin and his wife had their 1st baby two days ago, a girl, and they just found out she has Downs Syndrome. A one in 10,000 chance.

Yea, things could be a whole lot worse.

I was wondering if it was Bell's Palsy! A guy I know has it right now. Warning -- he has it now on one side, but he had it on the other side a few years ago. Sometimes it comes back.

Not to scare you! Actually, now I've scared myself, because I'm sitting here wondering if my nerve is on the brink of pinching.

Anyway, thanks for visiting my site! I've got you bookmarked, too.
I guess it's only experiences like these that makes one appreciate the things we often take for granted. For example a quiet and conservative neighbour?

If I was living one floor (or two) away from you, you'd be deaf indefinitely!

Think counter-strike with speakers turned on full blast!
Thanks for the anagram idea. Strangely, last night I was at a bar with a friend and we decided to come up with anagrams using the names of famous people. So there I was, on a barstool and writing on a cocktail napkin, trying to figure out how many phrases I could create by using the letters in Nicole Kidman's name.

The only one I remember is E.COLI AND MINK.
Boy, some guys will do almost anything to get out of wedding pictures. :)
I know this is super late, but I've been reading the archived posts for an extra MM fix and I came across this.

I too had a Bell's Palsy, at age 9. Rather than the sudden onset like you, the right side of my face became gradually more droopy over the course of a few days. My mother, (a nurse!) denied there was anything wrong until I could not close my eye, and drool was dripping down my chin, then she took me to the GP where I was sent straight away to the hospital (apparently a Bell's Palsy in someone so young can often be caused by something more serious).

I wish I had your powers of description, because with hindsight, the idea of a frightened girl being rushed to hospital, crying, yet unable to control the muscles of her face to prevent the tears and mucus gushing out over the painful grimace, that would for the next few years suffice as they only facial expression she could muster up...well, it's actually pretty damn funny.

I too had to endure the gawking med students, the sticky eye drops (that went more over my face than in my eye) and my personal favourite, the eye patch. Only they didn’t give me a patch, just some medical tape to stick my eyelid down. I had a lopsided smile until I was about 14 as well, but I recovered.

I’m glad you can look on it with such humour – as a child it was absolutely the worst thing that happened to me, but as I said, hindsight can turn horrors into laughs.
I knew about Bell's Palsy, but never thought I would laugh so hard about a painful and obscure malady. The dialogue was great. I'm also avoiding deadline, thanks.

But I've got a question--I have a friend (a huge music fan) who woke up one morning and had completely lost the hearing in one ear. What the hell? She's getting shots, etc., without great results. This made me wonder if something like what happened here could be her problem.
Oh... My... God! That is one of the best stories I have EVER read. You managed to combine absolute horror with fantastic humor. That is definitely not an easy trick to pull off.

Thank you, very much.
I held my breath all the way through, trying not to laugh, it was very difficult, so eventually I died of suffocation, but managed to revive myself, and enjoy the rest of a most wonderful story.
Glad all was well in the end, still laughing.
What a great story. My nephew's wife had Bell's Palsy at one time, and hers eventually cleared up completely, too.

Glad you're okay now!!
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