33. A New Smile

33. A New Smile

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

A New Smile

Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.

~Thích Nht Hnh

It was a miracle I had survived the past eight months. I had finally made it to my third trimester after a pregnancy fraught with complications. It felt like I spent more time with my doctor than my husband, and I had an entire baby book filled with sonograms chronicling every few days of my tiny boy’s development in utero. For the first time in months I could breathe; we were going to be okay. Needless to say, I was not expecting to wake up the next morning and have my life forever altered.

I woke up feeling off. While putting on lipstick I noticed that I couldn’t quite press my lips together. I called to my husband and asked him if anything looked strange about my face. He paused a moment and, being the smart husband that he is, responded that I looked beautiful as always.

Within hours it was obvious that all was not well — half my face was paralyzed. I couldn’t blink, smile or move the right side of my face. My hearing was off, the world was spinning, and there was a searing pain behind my ear. The pain was so intense it left me unable to function, and I ended up in the hospital.

After a quick diagnosis of Bell’s palsy, the OB/GYN, neurologist, pediatrician and various nurses each made a point of telling me to “give it a few weeks” and everything would be back to normal. So I waited, and waited, and waited some more until it became quite obvious that I was not recovering and this was my “new normal.”

Searching for answers, my husband and I visited a neurologist from a world-renowned teaching hospital. The doctor very quickly concluded that I had been misdiagnosed and actually had a very rare condition called Ramsay Hunt Syndrome. Although it didn’t change the outcome, it did help me understand the symptoms, as well as the fact that I was one of the unlucky ones who would not likely recover. The right side of my face would be permanently paralyzed and I would never be able to blink my eye or smile again. I was stunned that I was going to have to spend the rest of my life looking like this. It was hard to believe I was only thirty-two years old — I felt like I had aged decades in a mere eight months.

I would like to say I just took a deep breath, accepted my situation and moved on with my life. But few things in life are really that simple. For a while I just ignored reality. I chose to look in the mirror as little as possible. I stopped making eye contact with people. I looked down when I was walking. The vertigo and sensory issues made large crowds almost impossible, so the physical issues from my illness made limiting social interaction easy.

I felt very alone. No one I knew had ever experienced facial paralysis. People told me they really didn’t even notice, but I always saw the cringe a split second before they masked it with a smile and pretended everything was fine. Bless those sweet children who, in their honesty, often asked, “Lady, what is wrong with your face?”

Over time I grew tired — tired of having to tape my eye shut at night because I couldn’t blink; tired of my face aching all the time; tired of headaches; tired of not being able to drink out of a water bottle because my mouth couldn’t close around it; tired of people pretending nothing was different about me; tired of not being able to smile and express happiness; and tired of being limited.

Months passed, and I realized that the inability to express joy and happiness had sunk deep. It had passed from my outward expression to my soul. I had lost my smile. Not just the smile on the outside, but my smile on the inside. It is amazing how losing this one thing affected every part of who I was, and I grieved deeply for it.

There was no great sign from heaven, no life-altering moment when I realized I couldn’t continue on like this. Little by little, it was a growing sense that I had to make a change. I did not like who I had become and how this illness had begun to define me. In my pain and exhaustion, I had allowed it to take over my life.

I started by doing small things I used to enjoy. I read a book, took a walk, and got a pedicure. I began talking to people again, attending functions, and going on dates with my husband. I decided to find simple ways to help others instead of always being the one who needed help. As I made these small changes, I noticed I felt better.

As I began to move forward with my life, I learned I was an ideal candidate for what is known as “smile surgery.” This intricate microsurgery took a muscle from my thigh and connected it in my cheek to give me the ability to smile again. In the hands of an incredible surgeon, I decided I was ready to have my smile back. The surgery took over eight hours, and several months to fully recover. Finally, three months after the surgery, I saw something truly amazing — for the first time in nearly three years I could smile!

While recovering, I realized I was searching for deeper meaning to this whole experience. How could I use what I had been through to help others, so I could feel some sense of good came from this? At first, it was just showing empathy in a new way. I had a perspective on pain that few have experienced. As I became more open about what I had gone through, I realized I had experience with misdiagnosis. My story was able to encourage others to seek second opinions and find answers. Most of all I could offer hope for those suffering with facial paralysis. So few know of the amazing options available to them.

It has taken years and the help of many wonderful, talented people to be where I am at today. Some days, it is still a struggle to not let this illness defeat me. It is difficult to find the energy to be me and stay positive, but I am grateful every day that I can smile. My old smile came effortlessly; my new smile has been achieved through tremendous pain and effort. Each time I smile I am reminded that I have something to give.

~Katie Bangert

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