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My New Face

I woke up Tuesday morning and lounged in bed for a bit, relaxing. I’d slept well. I felt good. Except for my left eye, which felt a little weird, like it wouldn’t close all the way when I blinked, but whatever. Mike was grinding coffee in the kitchen, the whirr of the blades drew me from bed. My small cup of morning coffee always a treat, something to look forward to. I brushed my teeth, filled my mouth with water to rinse, and water sprayed from the left side of my mouth, down my swollen belly.

What. the. fuck.

I smiled at myself in the mirror, a strange grin, because only half my face smiled back at me.

I thought I was having a stroke. Mike tested me (thank heavens for EMT-trained husbands) and assured me that wasn’t what was happening. “But call the doctor,” he said, “let’s get you checked out.” While I was on the phone, he was googling, and bless his heart he didn’t tell me what he read. Later on he mentioned that I should NEVER google medical symptoms, but darling, I told him, I already knew that.

We checked into Labor & Delivery around 10:30 a.m. It’s where Kaiser sends any pregnant woman with any medical concerns. They had me undress, put me in bed, hooked me up to a million machines, wanted to keep an eye on the baby. She’s doing fine, they promised. She’s perfect.

Thank God.

My OB came and checked me out. Said it’s probably Bells Palsy, but he wanted the house MD to see me too. He left. We waited. They brought us lunch – sandwiches and fruit salad. The house MD came in, made me run through a million stroke tests, just to rule everything out. Was perplexed by the pain in my neck and the numbness in my tongue. Left. We waited.

My OB came back and said he’d spoken to someone in neurology. It’s probably just Bells Palsy, he assured us, but they’ve ordered an MRI to rule out stroke, blood clots, brain tumors. He left. We waited. I cried. Mike held me.

“Everything has been perfect so far, so easy, why is this happening?”

“Because things can’t be perfect all the time. Life would get too boring.”

The nursing staff was lovely. Brought us snacks, water, cranberry juice. I tried to nap. Got up and walked around. Did some yoga stretches on the bed. Practiced my deep, slow, labor breathing.

At 4:25 they brought a wheel chair in, guided us through hallways and corridors, me in my hospital gown, a blanket around my shoulders, my bare feet on the cold metal foot pads. I thought, “I’m so glad I’ve kept my pedicures up.” And then, “If its a stroke, or a blood clot, they’ll probably have to do emergency surgery. And they’ll start with a c-section. And I might never get to hold my baby.” And then I practiced my slow, deep breathing some more.

The MRI wasn’t so bad. I can see how easy it would be to panic inside one of those machines. I kept my eyes closed the whole time, except my left eye which leaked in bright lights, white, clinical plastic. I took slow, deep breaths. A single tear slid down my right temple, pooled in my hair. I started counting my inhales and exhales in time with the unbelievable cacophony of the MRI. Inhale – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Exhale – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 , 10, 11, 12. When thoughts crept in I reminded myself, Inhale – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Exhale – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 , 10, 11, 12.¬†Twenty-five minutes passed like five and we were done.

I waited for the nurse to collect me, Mike from the waiting room, and take us back to L&D. I cried quietly into my hands, so people wouldn’t see. A woman in scrubs congratulated us on our new baby, assuming that’s why we were being wheeled into L&D. A stupid assumption from a medical professional, especially when the mother is weeping silently, face buried in shaking hands.

I got back into bed. Mike rubbed my back and whispered sweet things in my ear. We waited. They brought us dinner. At 6:30 we got the results. All clear. It’s Bells Palsy for sure. No big deal. A strict regimen of Prednisone (completely safe to take while pregnant, they insisted) should show improvement in a week. I should have full use of my face again in about two weeks. It could have been so much worse.

They released us at 7:30. It was 8:45 before we left the hospital, long lines in the pharmacy. Sick people coughing all over us.

I’ve been “the pretty girl” most of my life. An awkward child with glasses and gap teeth, I bloomed in junior high and never looked back. I haven’t always felt pretty, or thought I was pretty enough, but it wasn’t until I was a grown, married woman that I began to learn that my pretty face isn’t the most important part of who I am. Still, I’m vain enough that this, this paralysis of the left side of my face, the lopsided smile and gecko-blinking eyes, hurts my ego in a very deep, hard way.

“I deserve this,” I told Mike.

“You do not deserve this.”

“I do. There’s a lesson to learn here.”

It’s okay if you think I sound shallow and silly. I feel shallow and silly. I am so, so, so unbelievably lucky, I know. For all the things it could have been, it’s likely only temporary. And most importantly of all, no matter what happened to me, the baby girl in my belly is 100% unaffected and totally, absolutely healthy. I couldn’t ask for more than that.

I consulted with four doctors, my midwife, my doula (who is more than my doula, she’s been my friend for seventeen years), and my family before I agreed to take the Prednisone. I haven’t even felt comfortable taking Tylenol since I’ve been pregnant, and Prednisone is a serious steroid. But everyone told me the risks of not taking the Prednisone far outweighed the risk of taking it, so I’m taking it. I started acupuncture yesterday, too, because Mike read that it yields the best results for Bells Palsy.

Talking is difficult. Eating is difficult. I drool a little. When I drink, whatever I’m drinking leaks out the side of my mouth. Using a straw is worse because I can’t wrap my lips around it properly. ¬†The muscles in my jaw and the right side of my face ache from over-compensating. I’m terribly self-conscious. I’m working on my attitude. There’s a lesson to learn here, I know it. But I’m still trying to figure out what it is.