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By Mike Huff
This is my first written documentation of my experience with Bell’s Palsy in 2003. Many have encouraged me to document my experiences, but for the longest time, while I was certainly progressing positively, I couldn’t say for sure that I was “past it” and therefore, what could I say until I felt like I could look back on my experiences? It’s now over 12 years later – I enjoy a great deal of satisfaction in my career: I’m a tenured member of the faculty at Troy University in Alabama and I perform as a regular member of the Mobile Symphony, the Pensacola Symphony, and the Meridian Symphony. So, I guess it’s safe to say that I am “past it,” even though the experience certainly changed the course of my career.
In 2003, I had just separated from the USAF Band in Washington and accepted a teaching position at Mississippi State University. While playing some simple technical exercises with a student, I noticed that I could only play for about two measures before losing my embouchure and leaking air to the point that the sound stopped. Obviously I thought this was odd, but later in the day while trying to teach in a studio class, I noticed that my left eye was watering profusely and would not stop, and it was then that I realized that my left eye was not blinking. Worrying that I could be experiencing a stroke or something very serious, I immediately went to my doctor’s office where I was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy, which is a nerve condition that paralyzes the facial muscles on one side of your face – for me, it was my left. For most non-musicians, this is an inconvenience. It is hard to eat or drink for a couple weeks and you may have to tape your eye shut when you sleep. Gradually it goes away and you resume your normal function once the nerves regenerate and re-connect. But for a musician who makes his living with his facial muscles, this was kind of a big deal and worrisome to say the least!
At first, playing was absolutely impossible. A few hours of each day when I normally might be practicing and my evenings and weekends when I might normally be performing were suddenly free, and so I used this new found freedom to read, communicate with colleagues and mentors, and to learn as much as I could about how I might recover as quickly and healthily as possible. I found it interesting that the more people I spoke with, the more people I found who had either dealt with Bell’s Palsy or something similar, or who could tell me that they knew someone who had dealt with it.
I tried a multitude of treatments, mostly because I had the time to learn about them and try things. As my doctor recommended, I started with a course of steroids and anti-viral medication to hopefully stop the damage to my nerves from continuing. I also tried B complex, B vitamins, liquid silver, enzyme therapy, and a strange, small gadget called the “facial flex” to exercise my facial muscles once the paralysis began to subside. I had regular sessions of physical therapy (actually, more specifically speech therapy, even though my speech was not affected) that included the electronic stimulation of the muscles.
Gradually, over the course of about a year, my playing resumed. First with only one note, then to a range of about a third, then a fifth, then an octave and so on. Many colleagues who are dealing with Bell’s Palsy or similar “chop issues” have searched me out with questions pertaining to my experience, and it has been nice to be able to “pay forward” some of the great help and advice that was given to me. In some ways, the slow, methodical recovery has been great for my playing. There are some aspects that are better than they have ever been, and occasionally there is still some residual weakness. But at this stage, it is difficult to tell if it is a result of the Bell’s Palsy, if it is more from the natural aging process, or simply from irregular practice habits!
In all, my experience, while certainly challenging, has left me a stronger teacher and a more sensitive musician. And, I suppose the mere fact that I have been able to move forward in a career that still continues to grow might be proof positive that I may be “beyond it” and can now reasonably start to draw some conclusions.