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» Bell's Palsy
HOW CRUEL TO CALL IT 'BELL'S PALSY!'
BY: GRAEME GARDEN
On December 1st 2002, while driving south along the M6, I discovered that I couldn't whistle. I don't know why I wanted to whistle; perhaps it was because I was on the way home after a particularly busy week. The previous Sunday evening we had recorded two editions of 'I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue' in front of a live audience at Blackpool's Grand Theatre. Next morning I drove up to Edinburgh for a lunchtime meeting with a group of writers, with whom I spent the week outlining 13 episodes for a children's drama series called 'The Shoebox Zoo', then back on Saturday to visit my mother in Preston, before driving home again on the Sunday, which was when I must have felt the need to whistle, and discovered it was impossible.
At home that evening the need to whistle didn't arise, but I did notice that my mouth felt odd on the left hand side; not numb exactly, or puffy, but sort of weak and loose and…odd. I began to suspect what was going on, and so it didn't come as an enormous surprise the next morning when I woke to find the left side of my face completely paralysed. I revealed the condition to my wife, Emma, as gently as I could; having caught sight of myself in the mirror it appeared that my face in repose took on an expression of shock or despair, and if I tried to smile, what came across was a most unsettling (and uncharacteristic) leer. She coped with this apparition pretty well, but was concerned about the cause. As a non-practising qualified doctor I knew a little about Bell's Palsy, at least enough to diagnose myself and rule out the more frightening possibilities such as a stroke. A visit to my GP confirmed the diagnosis, and I was duly prescribed a short sharp course of prednisolone and acyclovir (no famcyclovir being immediately available). After that, all being well, I could look forward to a lopsided month or two, followed by a complete recovery. Meanwhile, I had to phone my agent.
The call to my agent, also called Emma, was a matter of some urgency, as the following morning, Tuesday, I was due to report to the set of 'Holby City' to record two episodes playing the role of a cardio-thoracic surgeon. It was only fair to let the producer know that, although I was fit enough to work, 50% of my face was simply not up to the job. It was too late to recast the part, so I said I was prepared to give it a go, and with luck we'd get away with it, but if the results were unacceptable then a rethink would be required. There then followed a series of phone calls between my agent Emma, my wife Emma, and the producer - yet another Emma - about the state of my face, how bad it really looked, and whether viewers might think I was ill or had suffered a stroke, or was drunk, or just playing the fool. We decided to go for it, so it was off to Elstree for three days recording.
The production staff and the cast were very understanding and supportive. My performance as Mr Loftwood was perhaps a little more muted than normal, but I think we got away with it. It was helped in the Operating Theatre scenes by the fact that I wore a surgical mask, and in the other scenes they managed to favour my good side to the camera, although there were moments when Mr Hyde was rather more in evidence than Dr Jekyll.
On the Saturday at the end of the first week of affliction we had a family dinner party to celebrate our son Tom's 18th birthday. I sat at the head of the table, and towards the end of the meal noticed that everybody on one side of the table was in great high spirits, while those on the other side seemed rather dour and gloomy. My wife pointed out that those sitting on my right could see me smiling and animated, while those on the left saw only the paralysed, grim and unresponsive side of my face, which put a bit of a damper on their mood. Even when people understand the problem, they still can't help reacting to the message they perceive the Bell's-palsied face to be sending out, however unintentionally, and it is also very tedious having to keep explaining to people why you look the way you do.
The other peculiar sensation was of the affected side of the head having its own personality, being cold and unresponsive, unlike the 'normal' side, which at times felt somehow out of control. If I smiled or laughed, it was as if the left side was un-amused, and saying 'get a grip of yourself!' while the right side contorted itself uncontrollably into half a grin or giggle: a strange and disconcerting experience. Eating and drinking could also be troublesome, with a spurt of tea or gravy suddenly scooting out of the affected corner of the mouth. I could understand why people suffering from this embarrassing condition often like to hide themselves away and avoid social contact wherever possible. Unfortunately my diary was not prepared to allow me this luxury. Next Monday, December 9th, I was to record another two editions of 'I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue', this time at Sadlers Wells in London.
The audience of a thousand or so responded to my opening contributions rather coolly. Perhaps they were overcome with sympathy, or concern, or confusion, or fear, or perhaps were simply not minded to mock the afflicted. It therefore seemed a good idea to explain to them about Bell's Palsy, and how it affected the facial expression, and indeed speech. The loose lips find it difficult to pronounce Bs and Ps - which makes it especially cruel of the medical profession to call it Bell's Palsy. When someone asks you what's wrong, you tend to reply 'It's Whbhell's Whphalsy!'
That Thursday saw me at a school prize-giving, and once again I had to explain the condition to the assembled sixth-formers. It also seemed prudent to let them know that, in view of my lopsided leer and one winking eye, Social Services had been informed! In the days that followed there was a radio pilot in which I played a character who was supposed to be pretty leery anyway, so that was all right, and then a signing session for Dr Who fans to promote an audio episode I'd been in. The 'Whovians' who flocked to get the signatures and buy the merchandise may just have thought I was in some clever prosthetic make-up, and on that occasion I didn't feel the need to do any explaining at all. After that, a few meetings, brief visits to the odd party, and Christmas. By the end of January I was counting wrinkles gain, and by February my face was back to as near normal as it ever was.
I am very well aware that I got off lightly. The condition ran its course according to the textbook, and the prompt medication may well have helped. However, I am also aware that some people recover without treatment, while others are treated but have problems lasting many months or years. One doctor wrote to me saying that she had suffered for 12 months, then fell headfirst down a flight of stairs in New Zealand, and on regaining consciousness found she was cured. She does not recommend this course of treatment. What causes the condition is also currently unclear, although it does seem to be associated with the Herpes simplex virus. Then again, we can't rule out the old tale that sitting in a draught brings it on; my own week of driving long distances and sitting in a draughty Edinburgh hotel bedroom working on a lap-top might be seen to point in that direction. One thing I did learn from my own, comparatively brief experience of the palsy was that, once they understand what the problem is, people are much more supportive and sympathetic than you might suppose.