On February 10, Tammy Leal immediately knew something was wrong with her face when she woke up and felt both of her eyes release an unusual amount of tears.
After explaining it to her eldest daughter, they dismissed it as allergy symptoms. Two days later, she felt dehydrated with abnormally dry lips and a strange painful sensation around her tongue. Again, she dismissed it with logical reasoning.
The next day, the 55-year-old mother of three from Schererville went to work at her part-time job at a Lowes home improvement store. She didn’t make it through her shift. She lost her balance, felt anxious, started sweating and had blurred vision.
“At that moment, I knew something was wrong,” Leal recalled.
She left work early and stopped at a store to buy some things. A cashier said, “Happy Super Bowl Sunday! Leal tried to tell him. All that came out was, “Hap…Su…Bo…” Panic hit her. She left embarrassed.
When Leal told her daughter what had happened later that evening, she insisted that her mother go to the emergency room. They googled his symptoms and feared a stroke.
In the ER, a staff member suggested her symptoms pointed to Bell’s palsy, an often unexplained episode of facial muscle weakness or paralysis. The condition usually starts suddenly and then gets worse over the next 48 hours. Sometimes triggered by a viral infection or an immune system reaction, Bell’s palsy can affect anyone at any age.
Two other emergency doctors were brought in to confirm Leal’s diagnosis. She was sent home with a prescription for steroids and a warning that her condition could last two to four weeks.
“That’s when Bell’s palsy decided to take hold in my facial structure,” Leal said.
His condition worsened. The left side of her face sank considerably. Leal’s signature megawatt smile struggled to light up his distorted face.
“My life completely changed from that day on,” she said.
For many people, Bell’s palsy fades after a few weeks. For others, it lasts for months. Some patients never fully recover. It’s been three months for Leal, who thinks she’s only 20% recovered and back to normal.
“I expect a full recovery. However, I have days that set me back and I don’t think I’m going to recover as I would like,” Leal said.
She had to stop working at both of her jobs, at Lowes and also for Chicago Heights School District #170, where she has worked for 30 years, most recently as an assistant food director. Leal proudly worked seven days a week until Bell’s paralysis struck.
She has more free time than ever, so a parent surprised her with some drawing materials to calm her mind while she recovers. Leal, who has an artistic background, began sketching her feelings and fears through artistic self-portraits at various stages of her recovery.
“There’s so much meaning behind every design,” Leal said. “I’ve touched a lot of people with them and they don’t even look good.”
The designs may not be beautiful, but they are beautiful. Each captures a female face affected by Bell’s Palsy, as well as internal emotions affected by this mysterious condition. Leal has created a powerful visual gallery of his ordeal to complement his daily diary. (See more of his works on my Facebook page, www.facebook.com/JerDavich.)
For example, “Week One: My thoughts were very confusing and frustrating. My right eye wouldn’t close and was very dry. I constantly had to apply ointment and tape my eyes shut. My hearing was so bad that I scared myself with certain pitches of others (or myself) speaking. I had problems saying words with the letters B, F, M, O, P, U, V.”
By week five, a neurologist confirmed that Leal had a severe case of Bell’s palsy. The following week, she began speech therapy, learning to manually move her facial features with her fingers. It’s been a frustrating return to normality and she’s not close to it yet.
“I look at Bell’s palsy in a completely different way now that I have it,” said Leal, who is divorced with a grandchild.
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Many people may have heard of this condition, but they don’t know its details. This is why Leal has chosen to share his painful story and his graphic work publicly.
“I’m so amazed at how many hearts I’ve touched with people who weren’t aware of what you get with Bell’s Palsy,” she said. “I prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”
His face continues to sag. His jaw continues to throb. His nose looks crooked. His eyes are irritated.
“I can’t smile,” she wrote in her diary.
Yet somehow his optimistic spirit shines through his defiant face.
“I still have good days and bad days, I just can’t choose the days,” Leal joked.