Health: COVID-19 Facial Coverings
The Coronavirus Pandemic has disturbed the delicate balance of daily life, but one writer found a strange symmetry in suddenly being asymmetrical.
“Is the mask magic?” he demanded with sudden, passionate interest.
“Yes.” I bowed my head, so that our eyes no longer met. “I made it magic to keep you safe. The mask is your friend, Erik. As long as you wear it, no mirror can ever show you the face again.” – Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER, BC — I woke up around midnight after passing out on the couch. I’d made a fire to get cozy after an hour-long swim in the ocean late in the afternoon, and I still felt cold. I plodded off to the bathroom to get ready for bed, and when I looked in the mirror — something looked a little off. I wrote it off to the awkward sleep position and the hard pillow. My face looked, well, saggy.
It wouldn’t have been the first time I was a little shocked by a late night encounter with my own reflection. But I could barely smile. More strange still, I couldn’t close one eye properly. I took two aspirin. And tested all my body parts for a lack of strength, numbness. I tested my reading ability. Did a Sudoku puzzle.
Because my father is a recovering stroke patient, and because friends and colleagues who are my age have suffered similar fates, I did think of a neurological catastrophe. But nothing seemed weird other than my face, and because the long, long, cold, cold swim was such an anomaly in my normal day-to-day, I went to bed — hoping things would be better in the morning.
It wouldn’t have been the first time I was a little shocked by a late night encounter with my own reflection. But I could barely smile. More strange still, I couldn’t close one eye properly.
A few hours later, after a glassy-eyed demi-doze, I peered at my face. It looked no worse. But it looked no better. I could raise my eyebrows. But couldn’t close my eye. My mouth couldn’t lift any higher than a Mona Lisa grin. I called my sister, the doctor. She dispatched her husband, the doctor, to pick me up and within half an hour, I was at Vancouver General.
For the next eight hours, I called “Triage Chair #3” my home. I had not been to a hospital since COVID started to infect the collective psyche. And things did look different. For starters, each chair was clearly labeled and set about a meter apart. Areas were constantly being wiped down. And a giant UV light that looked like a leftover prop from a 1950s sci-fi matinee was rolled into each examining room after a patient left. Through the small window, you could see bright flashes of white and blue light pulsing to a silent disco beat.
Triage Chair #3, my vinyl-upholstered bubble, was a front-seat to a stream of gurneys, escorted by paramedics, and sometimes, police. I was felt so lucky. Triage Chair #1 was hacking a mucus-laden chorus, and Triage Chair #2 had trouble walking. The only thing I couldn’t do was eat the croissant I’d brought with me. I stuffed a chunk of it under my mask, into my increasingly unwilling mouth, and tried to masticate. Mistake. But one made less awkward by the fact no one could see the pastry bits slowly turning into plaster at the side of my lip.
The first doc to see me said he was pretty sure it was “Bells palsy” given I had no other neurological symptoms. But because I could still sort of move my eyebrow, they had to be sure it wasn’t a cerebral vascular accident. Every hour or so, someone would check on me. Take my blood pressure. Test my reflexes. Make me follow a finger through space.
We have twelve cranial nerves. Every one of mine worked fine, except number seven — the facial nerve, tucked tightly behind the ear, though narrow canals in the skull. If the nerve gets inflamed, for some reason no one quite understands, it can get squished, and cease to function properly.
By the sixth hour of my stay, I had all the CT scans and blood work. It was just a matter of waiting for the neurologist to double-check the results, and an all-clear. She introduced herself as the “stroke doctor” — which was a little alarming. She also said everything seemed to indicate Bell’s palsy, and asked if it would it be okay for her residents to see me and test their clinical diagnostics. “Sure,” I slurred, surprising myself. It was definitely getting worse. On the upside, about 16 hours into onset, I was now a textbook case of Bell’s palsy. My eyebrow didn’t move at all, my eye would not blink, and when I opened my mouth wide, a Joker’s grin crawled up the side of my left face, while the right side sat there, an unmoving, wax replica.
About 16 hours into onset, I was now a textbook case of Bell’s palsy. My eyebrow didn’t move at all, my eye would not blink, and when I opened my mouth wide, a Joker’s grin crawled up the side of my left face…
How did this happen? It’s an entirely random thing. Idiopathic, they say. Auto-immune related, maybe. Like Shingles, kind of. It’s not rare. Statistically speaking, it affects 1.24 people per 10,000 per year. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “Bell’s palsy is the most common cause of facial paralysis, although its exact cause is unknown…. Most scientists believe that reactivation of an existing (dormant) viral infection may cause the disorder. Impaired immunity from stress, sleep deprivation, physical trauma, minor illness or autoimmune syndromes are suggested as the most likely triggers.”
No one really knows. But I can’t help but wonder: Did my swim make me cold and tired? Is this an aftershock from getting really sick in February (with what, I – like half the population of Vancouver — thinks was COVID?) Probably not. But the data sets are pretty limited at this point, so who knows? I’m actually writing this because I’m wondering if anyone else has suffered a similar nerve, or random autoimmune thing recently. Especially now that there’s anecdotal evidence of COVID and autoimmune-related nerve damage.
I’m also writing this because this whole medical experience happened in the time of a pandemic. And while COVID has reshaped the way we interact with each other and the world, it offered a silver lining for my condition: A mask. I can hide my warped face with a fashionable piece of paisley or floral, and just like that, there’s no difference between me, and the guy standing six feet away from me at the grocery store.
It’s such a huge relief. Even my slurry speech is forgiven thanks to the medically helpful muffle. Dr. Bonnie Henry, our world-famous public health officer, urged us all in April to use a non-medical face-covering in public and exercise proper “respiratory etiquette” around other people. And so far, most of us have complied without a ripple of protest. It’s just a thing now, like a seat belt, or a bike helmet, or sunscreen — a common-sense precaution.
Yet, for me, right now, it’s so much more. Like the forever bellowing Phantom, Erik, I have found the mask offers some magic. A spell that not only spares me the derision and shame of friends and strangers as a result of my temporary disfigurement, the mask takes my resting face off the hook. I don’t have to hear some random guy asking me to smile. I don’t have to worry about looking “angry” or “sad” or “ugly.” My expressions are on mute, and that’s a little bit of heaven these days.
Like the forever bellowing Phantom, Erik, I have found the mask offers some magic. A spell that not only spares me the derision and shame of friends and strangers as a result of my temporary disfigurement, the mask takes my resting face off the hook.
Oscar Wilde said “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” It’s an enduring pearl. Yet, these days, the very words “mask” and “truth” have accumulated meanings even Webster couldn’t have imagined. Everything is all upside-down, broken and unbalanced. Like everyone, I’ve been feeling out of sorts.
A mental semi-paralysis set in when COVID started to shut us all down. Nothing seemed worth doing. Toilet paper and food became odd obsessions. I felt only half-present. But now, the inner numbness of 2020 has a face, and it looks like mine: I can only half-smile. One eye is constantly tearing. And I can only raise one eyebrow in an endless nod to irony. Indeed, I might look all wrong, but given the freedom my mask allows, I feel all right. It’s weird, but I feel balanced in the imbalance, and both my face — and my psyche — improve day by day.
Katherine Monk is a Vancouver-based author and Ex-Press film critic. If you’d you would like to contact Katherine about this article, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
THE EX-PRESS, October 20, 2020