Diagnosed with Bell’s palsy just after New Year, James was playing handball at the Copper Box just two weeks later.
I had just got off the phone to my aunt. It was a Sunday evening. We have two cats in our house but no cat flap so usually I open the back door and then whistle to let them know it’s open.
Except, on this occasion, I couldn’t whistle. I tried again and again but there was something wrong with my mouth. It was bizarre. Very soon afterwards I realised I couldn’t close my left eye. Usually I can wink with either eye, but now I couldn’t. Blinking didn’t seem to be an option either, and my eye was watering up as a result.
I was a little perturbed by these facial malfunctions, to say the least, but my housemates were just starting a game of Worms Armageddon and I wasn’t about to turn down the opportunity of blowing them up with a Holy Hand Grenade.
I found it difficult to concentrate, however, because my eye kept watering up and I had to rub it regularly. After the game, which I lost (as a result of the eye, obviously, not my inability to hurl a grenade), I went online and started googling my symptoms.
After about an hour of searching various health websites, I concluded that either I was having a stroke, or I’d suffered a bout of Bell’s palsy. Neither scenario sounded fun. I needed to get this checked out ASAP. Because it was nearly midnight by now, A&E was the only place I could go.
It was the weekend just after New Year and the newspapers were full of stories about NHS waiting times going through the roof. But it wasn’t worth risking my health just because I didn’t want to sit in a hospital waiting room.
I caught a bus, luckily they were still running. I brought a book with me to entertain myself, although the eye issue made reading uncomfortable. The wait was two hours and the vending machine was broken. Not an ideal Sunday evening.
It took about 10 seconds for the doctor to diagnose Bell’s palsy. But then she asked if I could raise my eyebrows, and to her surprise, I could. Usually, she said, Bell’s palsy sufferers have immovable eyebrows. She said she needed a second opinion. House, I asked? No, not House.
The other doctor who wasn’t House said that because the Bell’s palsy had only struck about four hours ago, it was likely that not all the symptoms had shown up yet. My facial paralysis was likely to worsen before it got better. I was prescribed a course of steroids for the next 10 days. They commended my swift visit to hospital, because the earlier treatment starts the quicker the Bell’s palsy is likely to clear up.
I had to walk home as it was 2am and the buses had now stopped. It was a cold January night and the walk was about an hour. I got a bit lost. I was donning an eye patch, because my eye couldn’t blink and it needed to be protected from things that might damage it. It’s possible you can go blind, I was told, if my cornea were to be scratched.
Arriving home at 3am I got back on the internet and discovered that Bell’s palsy was more common than I’d thought. Pierce Brosnan and George Clooney had it, apparently. Not to mention wrestling commentator and WWE Hall of Famer, Jim Ross. James Bond, Batman and JR. I was in good company!
To sleep I had to tape my eye shut. Luckily, I was tired. I was also lucky I didn’t have work the next day. It meant I could spend some time alone getting used to my new condition, and adapting. In the morning more symptoms were noticeable. When I tried to drink, I’d dribble all over myself. I found some straws and carried them with me wherever I went.
I told my housemate what happened and she was convinced I was telling her some kind of elaborate joke. Then I showed her how I couldn’t whistle, or puff my cheeks. She apologised.
The next day I did go to work, having warned my boss in advance. Using a computer screen was really the only issue, with an eye patch, and I needed regular screen breaks to avoid a headache. But it wasn’t as bad I thought it might have been.
After a couple days my speech deteriorated quite badly. Any letter that involved putting my two lips together was proving a challenge. Ironically, this meant the letters B and P were most difficult to pronounce. Bell’s palsy is rather cruelly named.
Talking on the phone at work was awkward at times, but no-one actually mentioned it. I think I was more aware of it than anyone else. In my head it sounded like I was talking gibberish, but people still seemed to understand me perfectly well. Either that or they were being very polite.
After a week of the steroids I became sick. Everyone reacts to them differently, apparently. It’s weird the same medication can make one person very tired, and give another person insomnia. I had the former. At my nephew’s second birthday party, I fell asleep on the sofa as I tried to read him a story.
I got used to the symptoms and, after finishing the steroids, they started to improve. However, my big worry from the start of all this had been an upcoming handball match. I’d taken up the sport after watching it during the Olympics in London. The venue that hosted handball in 2012 was the Copper Box and my team was due to play there on the weekend two weeks following my Bell’s palsy diagnosis. It would be a dream come true. A bit like playing at Wembley if you’re a footballer, I guess. But there was no way I could play with an eye patch on. It’s a rough, physical sport and, like a lot of other sports, it requires you to have good vision.
Two days before the handball game I took my eye patch off. My eye had improved, and with a bit of force, I could close it. No winking or blinking, but I had recovered some element of control there.
I went to handball training on the Friday night. I was fine. A bit rusty, but otherwise fine. We were short of players, and without me, I was told, we wouldn’t have a team for the Copper Box.
I played. I hit the post and had a goal disallowed. We lost. But I’d made what, I’d venture, is a fairly remarkable recovery. Speech was still difficult, drinking was hazardous and anyone who ate with me got a rather unpleasant view of my food as I was chewing it. But I’d played handball at an Olympic venue and, quite frankly, I no longer gave a damn about anything else.
By James Cracknell
Since I wrote this article I made a full recovery – actually a remarkably quick one, I was back to 100% within a very short time. I think what helped was getting a fast diagnosis and treatment, within a few hours of the first symptoms I was taking medication.
Last reviewed: 22-10-2016 || Next review due: 22-10-2018