I open the drawers of some memories that I have neatly tucked away into the corners of my mind and I see 2011. We had been married for two-and-a-half years. I hear Rachit’s distant voice:
“I tried to rinse my mouth with water but it all came out.”
He did not answer.
As I lay in bed, my half-open eyes watched him move around, trying to find something to wear to work. What set us apart from most married couples was that my husband’s wardrobe was bigger than mine. Finally, he wore something and was out of the door.
A hectic day lay ahead for me. I had to lecture students at the university, correct their assignments, do some reading, writing and editing and scout social media for new opportunities.
At 7 p.m. Rachit came home. I took my eyes off the computer screen to say ‘hi’ to him. He entered the bathroom. A few minutes later he stood behind me and said, “I tried to rinse my mouth with mouthwash and it all came out.” I turned around to face him. “Really, that happened,” he said. I was speechless. The right half of his face did not move. Two words came to my mind, ‘Bell’s Palsy’.
The good part of being a journalist who covers health is that you come across a lot of terms ordinary folks don’t. In 2004, I had met a popular VJ-turned-singer, Raageshwari, who had suffered from this condition in 2000-‘01. The left side of her face had been paralysed and it had taken her a year-and-a-half to recover her voice and the functioning of her facial muscles. When I saw Rachit, I knew what he had. I urged him to meet the doctor immediately. For once, I wanted to be proved wrong. I wasn’t.
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What followed for the next nine months were visits to physicians, neurologists and physiotherapists. Nobody knew the cause. It could be viral or it could be because of the change in the air-pressure inside the ear when he did paragliding in Manali. They prescribed hope in the form of steroids, electrical stimulation and exercises.
I was taught how to massage those muscles with my thumb. When my thumb moved in circles along the points of the trigeminal nerve of my husband’s face, first along the lips, then cheeks, and finally near the eyes, I tried to suppress my pain. Rachit would try to cheer me up: “I can feel a bit of difference already.” I focussed hard on just my fingers and his muscles, obliterating every other thought that crept into my mind.
Initially, when Rachit went to work, his employees and clients would avoid looking at his face while speaking with him. The steroids made him drowsy. He put on a lot of weight and lost more hair. My once-athletic husband became bloated and pot-bellied. He could chew food only with one side of his mouth.
Wherever we went, the practitioners would ask him to smile. Rachit grinned. I looked away. I hated it! They asked him to smile more, as part of the exercises. When we met people at get-togethers, they talked about how much weight he had put on. We became socially-conscious, me more than him, because I did not want us to be photographed like that. His smile was the one thing I valued the most and it wasn’t coming back easily.
The problem with treating paralysis is that you’re never sure of whether you will recover or degenerate further. We kept trying and slowly things started to improve. He took electrical stimulation for six months. I massaged his facial muscles at least thrice a day, everyday. We integrated the physiotherapy sessions into both our routines. It took him about four months to gain control over his lower jaw and lips. He started using both sides of his mouth to chew his food. Then, slowly, he started working the muscles of the right cheek by trying to blow out candles, then the region around the nostril so he could wrinkle his nose and finally the brow and the eyelids.
It would be over a year before he would be able to purse his lips to kiss me again. That kiss was awkward but nice, not unlike the first time we had ever kissed. It would be nearly a year-and-a-half before he would be smile-ready for a camera.
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Having faced this just two-and-a-half years into our marriage has made us stronger as a team. I have learned to value the little things that make Rachit happy – playing tennis with his mates, bouncing rubber balls off the walls and ceilings (though it’s irritating), singing out loud, showing off his driving and parallel parking skills (though I hate driving), reading and discussing articles from The Economist and talking of new businesses to create. That smile on his face that we both fought to get back, is priceless!