Shortly after giving birth to her daughter, Helen suddenly developed Bell’s palsy. She tells of her fears and frustration until, seven months later, she made a full recovery.
My Bell’s palsy story began in May 2009, 11 weeks after giving birth to my daughter. I was 30 then. I had invited some friends round with their babies and had prepared drinks and cakes for everyone, but everything I tried tasted awful, especially the water I was drinking. My friends assured me that they were enjoying their food, and my loss of taste didn’t particularly concern me at the time.
The following day, I was out in the garden with my family and went to the kitchen to have a drink. As I tipped the glass up and tried to sip I realised that I didn’t have full control over my mouth. There were no other obvious signs of a problem though so, over the next few hours, my husband and I carried on with our normal routine. I was exclusively breastfeeding at the time so was keen to get my little girl settled before thinking about what to do next. By the end of the afternoon, I had lost my ability to blink my right eye and my speech was becoming increasingly slurred. As a speech and language therapist, I was aware of the symptoms of Bell’s palsy and we agreed that it was time to seek help from our local out-of-hours medical service. The doctor we saw confirmed that I was showing signs of Bell’s palsy but felt that, as a breastfeeding mother, it was not appropriate to prescribe any medication for me. I was encouraged to see my local GP in two weeks’ time if my symptoms had not resolved.
The greatest shock came when I woke the next morning. The whole of the right side of my face was now paralysed and my eye felt incredibly dry, although there was no associated pain. It was at this point that we rang family and friends and started researching the condition for ourselves. Most of the advice we found highlighted the recommendation that steroids and antivirals should be taken within the first 72 hours to have the greatest impact. We decided to visit our GP the next day, Monday, in order to get a second opinion and check that there was nothing more that could be done.
My memories of the next day are hazy, and this was really the start of the emotional rollercoaster that was to follow. Our GP stated that, due to the severity of my Bell’s palsy, it was important for me to be given steroids. Her concern was that the maximum dose that could be prescribed for breastfeeding mothers would not be sufficient and she was not familiar enough with the condition to advise me on the best way forward. Fortunately, through my job, I had close links with an Ear, Nose and Throat department and was able to see a consultant that afternoon. I was faced with the prospect of stopping breastfeeding immediately in order to take the five-day course of steroids. It was my family who made the decision that this was what needed to happen, and they nurtured my daughter as she moved on to bottles of formula.
The hospital loaned me an electric pump to allow me to maintain a milk supply whilst taking the steroids. I did this as much as possible but as my tiredness levels increased I found it very difficult to maintain, particularly as it involved waking in the night to express milk. I was hopeful that I would be able to return to breastfeeding after finishing the course of steroids, and did manage this for a few weeks afterwards. However, it was after completing the medication that I started to experience intense pain in my head and required prescription painkillers to cope with this. I sought some comfort from reading about others who had been through this pain and seen movement afterwards, hoping it was a sign of the nerve reawakening. I struggled to find any clear medical advice though, relying instead on what others had shared about their experiences of the condition.
I was surprised by how great an impact Bell’s palsy had on my self-confidence and I relied heavily on close friends and family to accompany me on trips out, especially as during the first few weeks I felt unable to drive. I’d had so many hopes and expectations during my pregnancy and felt hugely frustrated that the whole future of my family life and my career now appeared uncertain. I was also reluctant to have photos taken and worried about whether my daughter would copy my lopsided smile. Although I appreciated the kind comments that people made, and the reassurance that the majority of people with Bell’s palsy recovered, I was painfully aware that some people don’t have a full recovery and was desperate to see any signs of movement in my face.
A month after diagnosis, I had experienced a few little twitches around my eye, and slowly over the next six months, the right side of my face seemed to reawaken. By Christmas 2009, friends assured me that anyone who didn’t know I had Bell’s palsy would not be aware of it. My face remained tight though, especially when I was tired, and the different speed at which my eyes blinked was evident in photographs. The muscles around my eye would twitch as I chewed food and I felt self-conscious about eating in front of other people.
It is now three years since my Bell’s palsy diagnosis. In simple terms, I have had a full recovery, with mild residuals that only I am really aware of. At times I still feel my face tighten and know that I need to take a little more rest or use eye drops if my eyes feel dry, but these are just small reminders of how different the outcome could have been.
Helen shared her story in Essentials magazine in 2013.
Last reviewed: 22-10-2016 || Next review due: 22-10-2018