For the first couple of days after I developed Bell’s palsy, the song Big Girls Don’t Cry played in my head each time I stepped into the shower or washed my face. It had nothing to do with Jersey Boys but with a decades-old TV commercial for no-sting baby shampoo. Bell’s palsy, however, teaches you that it’s not only shampoo or soap which can sting your eyes. Ordinary water can be painful as well, all because your eyes cannot blink.
While pondering about blinking, I gained a new respect for the intricacies of the human body. The body is easily injured but it has evolved through time to develop various ways to function and protect itself. Take the simple acts of blinking and closing your eyes.
Blinking, an action we do without thinking about 20,000 times a day (more if you sleep fewer hours or do an all-nighter), is so crucial in protecting our eyes. We blink to keep our eyes moist and clean, protect our eyes from gusts of wind, sand and other tiny particles flying about us, shield our eyes from glaring light like the sun at high noon, force out any foreign object that may have eluded our eyelids, wipe the tears that tear glands in the outer corners of our eyes produce constantly, keep away nasty mosquitoes or other creatures which may find our eyeballs tasty, and ensure that we don’t unknowingly scratch the surface of our eyes with our finger. When we go to sleep, closing our eyes takes the place of blinking.
Since I am temporarily unable to blink or shut my left eye, I have to find substitutes for these two very simple, natural body defenses.
- I use eye drops several times a day to ensure my eye stays moist.
- I manually blink my left eye, especially if I’m outside and it’s windy.
- I wear sunglasses for protection from the blinding sun and the drying wind.
- I bought a pair of eyeglasses for people who suffer from hay fever for those times when sunglasses are not enough to keep strong gusts of wind and dust from attacking my eye. I look like a dork but I haven’t found their sexy versions.
- I wash my hair with my back towards the shower, to keep the shampoo and water away from my eyes. I just can’t make myself wear goggles to the shower.
- I am extra careful when washing my face and use wet face towel to wipe away the cleanser.
- I am very careful when I towel off and when I take off my T-shirts to avoid scratching my cornea.
- Before going to sleep, I tape my eye shut before sticking on an eye patch and using an eye pillow or an eye mask. I have lost eyebrow hairs (which at my age may not grow back) which got stuck on the tapes. Speaking of eye patches, my physiotherapist wants me to wear eye patches the whole day but I find them uncomfortable, tiring on my right (normal) eye, and affecting my depth perception. So I’m no longer interested in being a one-eyed pirate.
I have to constantly and consciously remember to do these things if I don’t want a damaged or blind eye when I regain my facial movements.
Other things I do
In addition to faithfully doing the things mentioned above, there are other things I do to help me heal.
- I dutifully take the medicine and supplements that my doctor prescribed.
- I go for acupuncture (Japanese style), which my doctor encouraged. Now, before anyone starts convulsing, let me assure you that I am fully aware of the scientific skepticism surrounding acupuncture. Be further assured that I don’t go to acupuncture for a cure. I find acupuncture therapeutic. Moreover, the acupuncture sessions are followed by relaxing massages from my acupuncturist’s assistant. I leave the clinic feeling refreshed and recharged. Placebo effect? Perhaps. But my doctor did say that I should do what I can to reduce stress.
- I massage my face. My doctor sent me to a physiotherapist who taught me facial massages. The purpose of the massages is to help maintain circulation and the agility of my face. These massages are not that different from the morning and evening facial massages I used to give my face. I just have to do more of them now.
- I use hot cleansing gel at night while massaging my face. I find it soothing.
- I do relaxation techniques.
My doctor and my physiotherapist prohibited the following:
- Any exercise or therapy which forces me to move my nonresponsive facial muscles
- Electrical stimulation
Their main concerns are overstimulation of the muscles and misfiring of the nerve after it heals, which may cause unwanted movements of facial muscles or the wrong muscles to respond to a nerve command. For example, my left eye may start to twitch or narrow when I smile, my cheek may move when I close my eyes, or my cheek may start twitching on its own.
Injuries, diseases and chronic conditions give me a new respect for the human body. It was only when I developed Type 2 diabetes that I became aware of how my metabolic system worked, and that human beings still cannot perfectly simulate that system (and Type 1 diabetics know this limitation more than I do). Now with Bell’s palsy, I’m more aware of how a blink protects this intricate piece of engineering called the eye. Considering all that I and people I know have been through, I am also more keenly aware of how much medicine, science and technology have advanced, as well as how much more we do not know but can achieve.