With the clarity of hindsight, I realize that the symptoms began Saturday night.
I was reading before bed. My left eyelid started twitching. I attributed it to fatigue. I keep reading, anyway. (It was Lisa Unger’s latest: Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six. Go ahead and try to put down any of Unger’s books; I dare you.) I finished the book, went to sleep, and in the morning, my eyelid still felt a little irritated. Fatigue, I thought. I shouldn’t have stayed up so late.
Toward evening on Sunday, I noticed that my left nostril was pinched. My left eye was watering a lot. I had a little post-nasal drip, and my tongue felt coated. Things didn’t taste quite right. A-ha! A sinus infection. The inflamed sinus was pressing on the muscles in my face, giving me a mild headache and minor eye irritation.
I’d had a sinus infection earlier in the year that recurred after seeming to get better. I figured I had another one. I decided to wait it out. If I didn’t get better in a few days, I’d go see a doctor then. If I went too soon, I’d most likely be told to wait, anyway.
On Monday morning, I tried to wolf-whistle at my wife and failed. I couldn’t purse my lips right. Instead of a whistle, what came out was a sputter. This was a little distressing. I whistle at Sweetie every day. It’s tradition! Also, I’ve been able to whistle since I was about, oh, ten years old.
But I still thought it was a sinus infection. I still had pressure inside my nose, my eye still felt twitchy, and I thought it was just inflamed sinuses pressing against the muscles in my face. I’d have to tough it out.
At my first meeting of the morning, the video preview showed that one eyebrow was raised, Spock-like. I could only bring it down with great difficulty. And I couldn’t raise the other eyebrow at all. Weird, I thought and pushed on. Later in the day, I noticed that I was pronouncing “p” or “b” sounds with a little bit of a sputter. Absurd, but I was committed to my self-diagnosis of sinus infection. It will pass.
Around four o’clock, I went out to talk to a neighbor. When I explained that the one raised eyebrow didn’t mean I was sneering at her, she said, “Are you sure it isn’t Bell’s?”
I thought, Nah. Couldn’t be. I couldn’t imagine anything so out of the ordinary happening to me. But after we finished talking, I looked up the symptoms. Son of a gun. Almost all of them seemed to apply. When my wife came home, she told me to go see a doctor right away. At the walk-in clinic, they told me to go to an Emergency Room. I could be having a stroke.
I was reasonably sure I wasn’t having a stroke. Other than half of my face being non-responsive, I didn’t have the other symptoms. No cognitive impairment, no weakness, no slurring of speech. (I’d already forgotten the plosive sputter because I’d taught myself to avoid it.) However, my self-diagnosis so far didn’t have a spectacular track record. I went to the ER.
The guy at the reception desk took one look at my face and made me sit down. A swarm of medical personnel appeared and whisked me away. They performed a bunch of diagnostic tests on my vision, my strength, my knowledge of who I was, where I was, and what day it was. (I almost failed the last one because I never pay attention to the date.)
It was at this point that I began to realize I should’ve been more concerned. I sort of view myself as a kind of Superman. Although I was sick a lot as a child, I learned not to complain about my health. Unless I’m in a lot of pain, I prefer to stick it out and wait for things to get better.
More tests. I had to tell the story of my symptoms so many times I got bored and began making jokes. I started referring to my facial paralysis as “resting Spock face.” Hilarious, right? But only one nurse got it. I had a video consultation with a neurologist. Could I raise my arms and keep them steady, with my eyes closed? Yes. Could I squeeze the nurse’s fingers with both hands evenly? Yes. (I felt bad about it because she was the one who laughed at my Spock joke.) Could I feel her touching my face on both sides? Yes. Etc. I passed every test. He said it looked like textbook Bell’s. But he recommended an MRI to be sure that “nothing crazy is going on in your brain.”
My dude, there is always something crazy going on in my brain. I sensed he wouldn’t appreciate the self-deprecating humor, so I kept that one to myself. Although I texted it to my friends.
I found myself spending the night in the hospital. The next morning, the MRI was noisy and uncomfortable. I used meditation and Cognitive Behavior techniques to keep myself from panicking from being constrained in a big tube.
I am breathing in; I am breathing out. I do not have to respond to the thoughts telling me I’m trapped.
It worked so well that I started to view the experience as absurd. I even had to suppress a fit of giggles at one point. The rhythm of the MRI machine changed from one obnoxious squawking to another and I thought, “This nightclub sucks. Every song is worse than the last.”
The MRI came back negative. “No brain?” I asked. No brain damage, the solemn doctor said. No sign of a stroke. Bell’s palsy. I’m to take a course of prednisone and anti-viral medication, and it should pass. Most people make a full recovery in three to four weeks. A nurse told me it had happened to her earlier this year. You couldn’t see any sign of it on her face. I’m confident the same will likely be true for me. Soon, this will be just a funny story I can tell.
But if there is a next, I’ll take the symptoms seriously and get my ass into an emergency room posthaste. Bell’s can look like a stroke, and you have precious little time to get treated for a stroke before the damage is permanent.
Now I await the blizzard of bills that are sure to come. I’m fortunate that I have the means to pay them. Not everybody does. I have good enough insurance to handle the rest beyond my deductible. Not everybody does. It’s a shame that in a society with so much abundance, we have decided to ration life-saving, life-changing medicine to a fraction of people. Many people defer care not because they’re convinced of their own invulnerability, but because our society only values you if you have money.