Hannah’s Story

After Hannah, 28, developed Bell’s palsy, she started documenting her feelings in a series of blog entries. By sharing her story and her ‘survival list’, she’s hoping to help other people in the same situation feel more positive about the future.

Hannah on her wedding day

Hannah on her wedding day

When I get a smile from my gorgeous daughter, I can’t help but have a little giggle – the poor thing has a wonky smile and this is my fault.

Her rather lopsided smile perfectly matches my own. This is not the result of my wicked sense of humour; it is because I have a condition called Bell’s palsy which paralysed the whole right side of my face.

In late May 2011, my husband Dan and I had just got back from a fab weekend away in Devon. We walked, Dan surfed, and we generally chilled out. The morning after our return, I woke up and felt a strange tingling sensation down the right-hand side of my face. I had been having pains behind my right ear all weekend and just brushed both things off. It was only when I tried to brush my teeth that I realised that I couldn’t feel my face. Also, the reflection staring back at me looked like I had had a stroke: the right side of my face had dropped and my eye was unable to close.

Being seven months pregnant, the thought I had suffered a stroke was rather alarming. After a rushed trip to my GP and 10 hours in the hospital, I was finally diagnosed with Bell’s palsy. I was prescribed a course of strong steroids and told that the condition ‘should’ resolve itself at best in a few weeks, but that it could take up to a couple of months. The word ‘should’ was a little worrying. What if I stayed like this? I looked like Quasimodo! My eye would not close; my cheek and jaw had slumped; I couldn’t speak properly, and sounded like I was drunk – the irony being that I couldn’t actually drink without dribbling! I couldn’t smile (when I tried I looked horrendous, lopsided and sneering), and I couldn’t kiss my husband.

Hannah had Bell's palsy

Hannah had Bell’s palsy

At any other time in my life, I would have been hiding away at home, embarrassed about my freak-like appearance; however, the realisation that whatever I did would potentially effect the health of my unborn baby really put things into perspective. My vanity had to take a back seat. As long as the baby was healthy then I figured I could put up with the dribbling, eye patch and slurred speech. I could be the weird mum in the corner of the playground – or become a real-life pirate!

No one really knows what causes Bell’s palsy. In some cases it is caused by a viral infection which can be heightened in pregnancy; this paired with fatigue and stress induces paralysis in one in 5,000 people. (This made me feel really special.)

As soon as little Miss S. popped out, the symptoms lessened and the feeling started to return – I can now close my eye and smile slightly but I still carry straws with me everywhere.
It’s funny what life throws at you. I am a firm believer that you sink or swim; my way of coping with this was to keep my sense of humour. Without it, combined with the stress of being hugely pregnant, it may have all got too much and could have affected my health or my baby’s in more serious ways. A sense of humour and a great family really will fix anything, and one evening’s antics sum this up to a T…

I thought I would romance my husband so I surprised him at the bedroom door, wearing Superman pants, an eight-month pregnancy bump, an eye patch and not much else – I have never seen him laugh so much in all my life!

Hannah hasn't fully recovered

Hannah hasn’t fully recovered

Today I ventured into dangerous waters and pulled on a bikini for the first time since little Miss S. arrived. Gone are the days of a flat tummy and shaven legs. I am sorry to admit that my legs usually resemble sandpaper, and my belly is far from flat. Don’t forget the stretch marks: seriously, as if giving birth wasn’t hard enough, you then get left with these amazing ripples of skin that more often than not are a nice pinky colour, so they stand out rather nicely. I am sticking to the story of being mauled by a tiger in the rainforest…

At least if people do stare at my ‘mummy tummy’, they are not staring at my wonky face. Stepping out in a bikini has helped me put to bed some demons. Since contracting Bell’s palsy I have fussed so much about my appearance; and yet now, more than a year on, it is so much better, almost 50 per cent back which is amazing. Maybe next year in the pool it will only be my belly people can stare at!

Hannah advocates keeping a sense of humour

Hannah advocates keeping a sense of humour

Initially I was lost and I felt very lonely in the feelings that I experienced about my face. Everyone always knew ‘someone who had had it’, but there was no one I could really talk to about my palsy. At the time it would have been great to have been able to ask some questions to someone who had been through it all. Family and partners are wonderful, but there are only so many times that you can hear, ‘But it’s so much better, I think it’s coming back!’ whilst you’ve just dribbled your way through another drink. A survival list like the one below would have been a lifesaver. I hope this may help anyone you may know who has to experience the ‘wonky face’:

  • Don’t panic, you have not had a stroke.
  • Take your steroids.
  • When your doctor tells you that there is nothing you can do and that it’s just a matter of time, do not nod, say thank you, and go home. Ask to be referred to a physio as soon as possible.
  • When the doctor says it can take up to three weeks to recover, don’t get down if six months later you’re still the same: everyone is different.
  • Take photos of yourself: it will help you track your progress, however small.
  • Buy straws: dribbling is not fun.
  • Buy dressing tape and eye patches, and take sunglasses with you everywhere, even in winter: you will look like a diva but squinting is a pain.
  • Do nothing and relax for your ‘special time’. Or get some nice facials.
  • Talk about how you feel to your nearest and dearest; don’t bottle anything up or you will explode in a teary and hysterical mess and your partner will think you’ve had a breakdown (sorry, Dan).
  • Laugh. Laugh at yourself and your situation, remember it feels like you are Quasimodo, but you could still be much worse.
  • Remember that it will get better over time. Keep up to date with physio appointments and do your exercises.

And finally,

  • Smile. It may be wonky, but it’s yours. Don’t feel shy or ashamed about your appearance, the experiences you go through make you who you are.

Six months ago I thought I was going to be a pirate with my eye patch; now I’m just Han with a slightly wonky face who winks if I eat on my right side – multitasking or what!

Update

Hannah shared her story with Prima Baby magazine, Styleable and in the Sunday Mirror supplement in 2013 to raise awareness of Bell’s palsy in pregnancy.

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Last reviewed: 22-10-2016    ||    Next review due: 22-10-2018