Getting diagnosed with facial paralysis when not in your home country by Ciku Kimeria
There is no perfect time to get sick – but definitely when you’re far from home might be one of the worst timings. Close to a month ago, I was diagnosed with a rare but treatable nerve condition that results in facial paralysis "Paralysie faciale a frigore"/"Bell's Palsy."
It all began with what I thought was an earache, then tonsillitis. After taking some antibiotics that are quite similar to penicillin my face started to swell - like Will Smith in Hitch. I called a doctor and was put on treatment for tonsillitis. He expected the swelling to go down on its own. Two days later there was no progress - the doctor came to see me. That's when he had me attempt to do simple actions such as "Close your eye", "Smile" and that's when I realized that even though the message in my brain was saying "close your eye", "smile" , nothing was moving on half of my face. Half of my face was completely paralyzed. Of course all this was happening in French. So when he diagnosed me with "Paralysie faciale a frigore" I thought to myself I had had a stroke - cause that's what I looked like. A person with a stroke -drooping face, no control of facial nerves and muscles etc. He saw the look on my face and told me not to worry. It's treatable and will go in a few weeks.
I had to google what I had in English. Of course it was scary finding Palsy in the English name of this condition. I thought to myself "Palsy" - that must have something to do with my brain. I haven't yet finished my second novel - I think I need my brain to be fully functional to do this. I was worried.
I went to see a neurologist and the diagnosis was confirmed. It gave me some peace of mind because the neurologist confirmed that with immediate treatment, I could be fully functional in 3 weeks to a month. Thus began my daily injections, daily physiotherapy sessions with electroshock therapy to my facial nerves and a whole lot of medications.
I would describe myself as a light to moderate night-time drooler in general. The first few days of Bell's Palsy - I turned into a drool monster. When you can't control half your face, you can't open or close your mouth - or prevent drool from dripping. Eating was an activity I could only undertake in private - it made me remember the difference between the german words "Essen" for when humans eat and "Fressen" for when animals eat.
One eye couldn't close - ever. You know what is more creepy (or more romantic depending on the setting) than finding someone watching you sleep? Waking up to find yourself watching you sleep- now that is material for a horror movie right there....I would manually close the eye using my fingers then wake up again a few hours later to find my eye wide open.
Smiling - I smiled like the joker. My mouth would completely go to one side.
Brushing my teeth -the bathroom floor would become a swimming pool.
So many moments during the past few weeks made me laugh. Sometimes you have to laugh - cause things can always be worse....and I always believe that having a positive attitude about things never hurts. Of course thinking positive will not fix everything, but negativity is definitely not your friend.
That day when I urgently needed to get to my neurologist appointment and I told the cab guy to take me to "Clinique du cap" but because my speech was affected by the palsy, I could only say "Clinique du caf.” He pretended he knew where that was. Halfway there, he asks for my phone (because he has no credit), but needs to call another driver for directions. He calls and asks for "Clinique to CAF" and i'm telling him "Not CAF", "CAP"...but of course I have no Ps.....so he says, "Yes, Clinique du CAF"....and I'm there in the backseat feeling like crying out of frustration...Really.....The letters I had to lose with this issue were the ones needed to direct me to the hospital? We were late for my appointment - and I had to wait in the reception for 2 hours till the doc got back from his lunch break.
Or the first day of physio when I was given a list with exercises I need to do daily and I could only recognize words such as nose, eyebrows, teeth etc. I learnt a lot of French that day ''Pucker your lips","Puff up your cheeks", "Frown", "Flare your nostrils" etc.
Or the evenings when I am doing my facial exercises (including blowing 30 kisses) and i'm sitting by the huge mirror next to the window....and the security guard is patrolling - likely wondering why I am blowing kisses.
Or the daily physio sessions where your face gets hooked to sensors on a machine that literally shocks your facial nerves. In the beginning the sensation is exactly like when you were a dumb kid and you went sticking a fork or knife into a socket - only to be left on the floor having suffered an electric shock. What were we even trying to plug in at that point? Not like we had phones or anything? It must have been something silly - that we were not even supposed to be using - iron box, kettle. So the machine shocks your facial nerves. It's a strange sensation at first, but after a few minutes I could not stop laughing. I think it somehow tickles your brain. I was telling myself "Shhhh. Now people in the hospital think you are mad."
Or my wonderful Cape Verdian physiotherapist - we would spend the session (in between shock treatment) discussing Cesaria Evora and Lura’s music.
Or having to chew gum throughout - it helps. Feeling like such a naughty teenager. I don't know if there is a way to chew gum as an adult and not look frivolous.
I know you're wondering - did the thought that I had been jujud ever cross my mind? Of course - I would not be a real African if I did not give that some consideration. It has to cross your mind when you wake up and your mouth is completely facing one side. I had also been warned that West African juju is stronger than East African juju. I ruled it out though. I've not wronged anyone in Senegal for them to go and tell the jujuman to cast a spell on me.
I got so many lessons from this whole experience. I think one of the largest that I can apply to life is about self-improvement. We will never ever be perfect. Perfection doesn't exist - in anything we do in life, but what's important is continued improvement. I got this revelation as I sat by the mirror day in, day out doing my facial exercises. Day 1 of "raise eyebrows" - nothing happens. Day 7 - Nothing happens but there is some twitching....Day 12 - my eyebrow can move - all on it's own!! It was so exciting. If my eyebrows can do push-ups, what can I not learn?
So what causes Bell's Palsy? It's completely random. When you have chicken pox, the virus remains latent on your nerve cells. In very rare instances - 0.025% chance - the virus can get reactivated leading to the swelling of the 7th cranial nerve close to the base of the ear - that then results in the nerve being blocked and the paralysis of facial activity - it usually affects half of your face.
So my advice to everyone today is to keep smiling – when you can. Life is not easy and you never know what trials people you meet are facing. Smile and make someone’s day today.
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