Subscribe for Free!

We'll send you our print magazine 6x per year!

Subscribe Now

Prefer email?
Sign-up for our email newsletter

Profiles
By Paul Wynn

Bouncing Back from Bell’s Palsy

Just before her first child was born, Maria McFarland, 42, was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy. She shares her journey toward recovery with Brain & Life.

bells-palsy.jpg
shutterstock.com

The morning after a friend’s wedding in November 2013, I woke up and felt something was wrong with my face. The feeling intensified when I started to brush my teeth and tried to spit out the water, but it dribbled down my face. I looked up in the mirror and noticed the left side of my face wasn’t moving and my left eye had a delayed blink.  

I thought I was having a stroke and panicked. I was 30 weeks pregnant and terrified that something might happen to my unborn child. After a visit to the emergency department, where I had some basic testing, I learned that my daughter was fine. I also learned that I had Bell’s palsy. Although a friend and a cousin had had the condition, I never really understood too much about it. I later learned that it’s a form of facial paralysis most commonly due to inflammation, trauma to a facial nerve, or a viral infection.

I was prescribed antivirals and steroids (after consulting with my doctor, I didn’t take the steroids because of my pregnancy) and told that symptoms typically clear up in a few weeks. Unfortunately, my case was not typical. The left side of my face was completely paralyzed for nine weeks, and I had persistent headaches. Eating was difficult because I couldn’t open my mouth to chew properly, and I had trouble pronouncing words correctly. I couldn’t blink my left eye, so I had to wear a patch every night before bed and apply eye drops throughout the day to prevent dryness and permanent damage to my cornea. I had severe pain in my jaw and a constant swoosh sound in my ear. Worst of all, I lost my smile. My biggest fear was not healing enough to smile at my daughter after her birth. 

Fortunately, Bell’s palsy did not affect my baby or the pregnancy. At 40 weeks, I delivered a healthy daughter on January 14, 2014. I was relieved she was fine and excited to be a new mom, but I was sad that I couldn’t smile, laugh, or sing songs to her.

To deal with the many emotions I was experiencing, I joined an online support group for mothers with Bell’s palsy. That’s where I learned about the Foundation for Facial Recovery in Rockville, MD. As it happened, the foundation was looking for a part-time administrator. I applied and got hired and was able to work from home. Coincident or not, I started feeling better soon after I began working for the foundation. When I glanced in the mirror, I looked more like myself.

Working at the foundation deepened my understanding of the condition. It also gave me the chance to coordinate a new virtual run/walk fundraiser, called Face the Challenge, which helped raise $35,000 in two years.

In 2019, I left the foundation and took a full-time position at a nearby children’s hospital. Although I still experience mild discomfort in my jaw, especially during the colder months, I’ve had no relapses. And my confidence has returned, which has given me the courage to help others get through this misunderstood condition. Best of all, I’m smiling again. —As told to Paul Wynn

Editor’s Note: Bell’s palsy occurs more often during pregnancy, especially in the third trimester. It’s also associated with worse long-term outcomes, such as complete facial paralysis, than in men and those who are not pregnant, according to a 2019 analysis published in Obstetrics and Gynecological Survey.