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Health & Fitness

People Newspapers’ Jennifer Erwin Shares Her Paralyzing Health Scare

When Jennifer Erwin lost her smile to Bell’s palsy, she was determined to get it back one way or another.
photography by Dan Sellers

I lost my smile on October 31, 2006, a day that began as oddly as it would end. To start, I was dressing up as my boss, Wick Allison (the principal owner of People Newspapers and the founder and CEO of D Magazine) in his standard-issue khaki pants, navy blazer, white button-down shirt, and D Magazine baseball cap. Believe me, this was not a regular occurrence. I also noticed a weird twitch on my eyelid that morning—once as I applied my mascara (a requirement whether impersonating a man or not) and again about an hour later during a meeting. Both times I figured my “Wick” wig was getting in the way, so I simply readjusted it and went on with my day. Little did I know those annoying spasms were the beginning of an event that would change my life.

In addition to the custom of wearing a costume to work on Halloween, People Newspapers—where I had just started as associate publisher after working in the D Magazine sales department for four years—also hosts a potluck lunch. I was indulging in the fiesta with my new co-workers when a chip covered in queso ended up on my shirt instead of in my mouth. (Only later would I realize that was because my mouth was already going numb.) Before I had time to clean up, my lips, tongue, left arm, and left leg started to tingle, and I was having trouble breathing. Was I having a stroke? I tried to remain calm as my colleagues contacted my then-husband, who picked me up and rushed me to the emergency room. After a CT scan and a thorough exam, we were relieved to hear it was not a stroke. The doctor did believe, however, that I had Bell’s palsy, a condition that causes the facial muscles to weaken or become paralyzed. But because numbness of the limbs is not a typical symptom, he couldn’t be 100 percent sure. I was sent home with instructions to see a neurologist the next day.

That night, my arm and leg were back to normal, but the left side of my face had worsened. My eye had to be closed manually and taped shut, and the entire left side of my face was completely paralyzed. When I got to the neurologist’s office, things weren’t looking any brighter. He suggested I see an ear, nose, and throat specialist. After several tests—one in which they slipped a strip of paper between my eyelid and eyeball to check if it was lubricating correctly—the ENT doctor confirmed I had Bell’s palsy, the most common cause of facial paralysis.

Caused by a virus that proliferates in the facial nerve, Bell’s is often seen in those between the ages of 15 and 45, and some reports suggest it may be more common in pregnant women, especially in their third trimester. This viral infection is believed to cause swelling in the facial nerve, which is located in the temporal bone, and when the nerve ceases functioning, the brain can no longer transmit signals to the facial musculature. The doctor explained that the only treatment was decompression surgery, in which they would cut my head open and scrape my skull to relieve the pressure on the main nerve. In addition, there was a strong chance I would go deaf in my left ear. I was horrified and drove home in tears—but my poor left eye couldn’t even cry.

I discussed my options with friends and family, and we agreed that I needed a second opinion. I e-mailed my cohorts at People Newspapers and D Magazine to inform them of my diagnosis—I joked that I couldn’t handle the pressure of being Wick Allison for even one day—and asked if anyone knew of a good ENT specialist. My inbox was flooded with well wishes and a recommendation that would eventually lead me to a wonderful physician, Brandon Isaacson, M.D., an assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery at UT Southwestern. At my first appointment, Dr. Isaacson told me that I absolutely did not need surgery. But unfortunately, aside from physical therapy and a two-week dose of steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs, there wasn’t much that could be done. Any recovery would occur within the first 18 months—although many patients begin to improve in as little as three weeks after onset—so I was just going to have to be patient.

At least now I understood what I was up against. My life as I knew it was over, and I was going to have to adjust to a new face and a 40 percent hearing loss in my left ear—a rare side effect. For the first eight months, I began every business meeting with an explanation of my condition, I learned to pretend to kiss the person next to me in photos to hide my “bad” side, and I acted as if drinking wine through a straw was a common occurrence. In an effort to speed up my recovery, I made half-hearted attempts at acupuncture and craniosacral massage but quit when improvement didn’t come quickly enough. I finally began physical therapy, also called facial nerve retraining, which has helped prevent parts of my face from moving at the wrong time. Many recovered Bell’s patients find it impossible to keep their eyes open while chewing. The only thing I’ve noticed is that my left eye closes when I yawn. If that’s the only lasting effect, I will consider myself lucky.

In February 2007, I could finally blink my eye (although I still had to tape it closed when I slept), and by May, so many of the symptoms had disappeared that I was actually able to stop thinking about it all the time. As of this writing, I’m still not 100 percent back to normal, and I’m not sure I ever will be. But I believe everything happens for a reason, and this experience has made me a healthier person. I now exercise regularly, take A vitamins to keep my nervous system strong, and I won’t let myself get too tired or stressed. If there is a recurrence, I’ll know how to deal with it.

Even more important: I know I can get through it.