Recovering from Bell’s Palsy

Recovering from Bell’s Palsy by Sherwood H. K. Finley II

Bell’s Palsy is a term most brass players have heard about and many rumors abound regarding what its specifics are. Basically, the condition involves paralysis of one side of the face. Cranial nerves enter each side of the face through a small channel in the skull just above each ear. Current medical theory is that a virus causes these nerves to swell and the degree of swelling is the degree of interrupted function, commonly referred to as paralysis.

Because the degree of swelling can be variable a wide range of reactions may be noted. In the more severe cases, a drooping of the mouth corner and corresponding eye may make the sufferer appear to have had a stroke. It is of the greatest importance that a neurologist be consulted immediately, this cannot be understated.

In my case, I was and still am an active trumpet player and teacher in Manhattan with a reputation for strong lead playing, solo work, and recording. One day while practicing, I noticed that my face seemed unusually tired at the beginning of the session. However, I was still able to play my normal routine, albeit with frequent rests. The next day was even worse, with an inability to play above a second line G. It was at this point that I called my doctor who said I should go to the Manhattan Eye & Ear Clinic because of their expertise in treating this condition.

I was sure and so was he that I had Bell’s Palsy. In the two to three hours before I was seen by the neurologist, the symptoms worsened even more. I could not blink or move my left eye, control the left corner of the mouth, or move the left cheek. I also noticed a reduction in the senses of taste and smell. The neurologist confirmed all this and added a new one: a substantial loss in hearing in the left ear. Within a few hours thirty years of work, study and experience were gone. The neurologist did various tests, primarily with tuning forks pressed against the center of my forehead. By the way, on an anatomy chart of the face, you will see that the face is divided exactly “down the middle” because each side is supplied by its own set of cranial nerves.

This is precisely what it was like to me and the paralysis extended basically from the area of the left ear to the mid-line of the face. The paralysis did not extend below the jaw line and the left forehead was not significantly effected. I would like to mention that I never truly understood what paralysis means until this illness; it is an unbelievably frustrating experience as no amount of concentration will produce even the tiniest movement. My anxiety was relieved quite a bit when the doctor said that I had a moderate case and the paralysis should diminish in two to three weeks leaving no after-effects. I couldn’t help thinking of several famous players I had known who seemed to have permanent after-effects when the paralysis subsided. I was told to take Prednisone (an oral cortisone) along with an antiviral medicine called Zovirax. In addition, an eye-patch was prescribed because when your eye is frozen in an open position it is very vulnerable to injury especially when you are asleep.

Because I am also a practitioner of an ancient form of energy healing called Reiki, I knew I had another powerful weapon to bring to the fight. However, I must also say that I did think a great deal about what would happen if I did not fully recover. I tried to define what a successful recovery would mean to me and I decided that if I could not play at my former level, I would choose not to play at all. I had seen others whose great abilities were significantly altered after Bell’s Palsy and I simply chose to not become one of them. This is not as easy a decision as it sounds, for brass players have a long-established identity and it is a tough one to alter or leave behind. But I also knew that many great players had come back successfully from this and other conditions: Ray Crisara, Louis Maggio, Bob McCoy, Raphael Mendez (with injuries almost too numerous to mention), Carlton MacBeth and Al Hirt. Maynard Ferguson had gone through a major teeth alteration that left him almost unable to play for a time. Pete Candoli and Roy Stevens had both come back after heart surgery, Mannie Klein after a major stroke. Knowing that these people had done it gave me a great deal of hope.

I also knew it was time to put my own healing work to the test, this was going to be the greatest challenge I had faced in Reiki. During the next two weeks I took my medicines (every five hours which is a difficult schedule) and did as much Reiki on myself as possible. My fiancĂ© would also massage my face at least once a day and because she is a Reiki master (as I am) I was receiving extra benefit. Or so I hoped. There was no change for two weeks. Eating was a nightmare, brushing teeth was laughable and I felt very self-conscious with the eye-patch. For the first week I had a slight drooping of the left corner of the mouth as well. My nightly experiment was to go into the bathroom, look at my left eye in the mirror and try to move it or make it blink. Nothing happened for two weeks. Then one night in what may have been the most joyous moment of my life, I could feel a tiny contraction in the muscles surrounding the eye. I couldn’t see it in the mirror, but it was there. I knew then on some level that I had it licked. I redoubled my Reiki work spending almost the entire waking time treating my face. The area seemed to soak up energy like a dry sponge and great heat was felt at all times. After three weeks unusual sensations began to appear: strange tics and jumps, feelings of electrical-like currents shooting across my face and a sensation just like having hot water poured all over my left cheek.

I continued to work at attempting to contract the various muscles on the left side of my face and began to have success at contracting the corner of the mouth and the cheek. I could just picture Roy Stevens saying “Don’t worry if the upper cheek muscles don’t come back you shouldn’t use them anyway!” After one month the left side of my face was basically back to normal but the greatest surprise was still to come. Bob McCoy had cautioned me that the muscle-memory on the afflicted side would be wiped out so half of my face would know what to do but the other half wouldn’t. I did not believe him and thought to myself that this is going to be just like a long layoff. Well, Bob was, as usual, right on the money. I thought back to a lecture Ray Crisara had given on his recovery from Bell’s Palsy and I decided to use that as my guide to begin practicing again. I began with soft mouthpiece practice and I found that the muscles on the unaffected right side were pulling the embouchure all out of place. It looked ridiculous. I was unable to play above a low C for one week, although I could feel the left side strengthening slowly bit-by-bit. I kept a graph of my progress, a holdover from studying the Schillinger System; the graph mostly went in a straight line with low C as the highest note.

Then after another week of this I went up to an E above high C! Walt Johnson has his book Double High C in Ten Minutes but I was pretty happy about high E in two weeks. In my playing I had always known that a high E played on the mouthpiece translated to a comfortable high G on the horn. And indeed this was what was happening. At this point I practiced primarily out of the Maggio lessons which I had learned years before with Clyde Reasinger and Carlton MacBeth.

The lip area under the rim on the left side did not feel stable and felt somewhat reminiscent of Novocain wearing off. This feeling was to last about eight months longer finally disappearing, fittingly, on New Year’s Eve. When I returned to playing jobs again, I found that I made some really weird mistakes every once in a while but primarily I was back to normal. The mental confidence, however, took about a year to return. I did not talk about all of this on the job with anyone until I was well over the problem because nothing gets attached to you faster than what you present to others.

All this is now well in the past and I am once again happy with my playing and very relieved to have this adventure concluded. As Bob McCoy would say, “Straight ahead and strive for tone!”


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