Always affable and engaging, Michael Ponzio loves sharing his skills and recipes. The executive chef at Chicago’s Union League Club flips between work and home.
But one year ago, the father of four’s smile suddenly vanished.
“I woke up and had no feeling,” Ponzio said. “I think I’m having a stroke. I can’t feel the entire left side of my face.”
What Ponzio had was Bell’s Palsy – his facial nerve paralyzed by a virus. There is no known cause, and the condition can strike at any time in any age group.
“When the virus attacks the facial nerve inside the skull, it causes swelling of the nerve,” said Loyola Medicine head and neck surgeon Dr. John Leonetti. “The swelling knocks out the blood supply to the nerve. This process over 24 hours leads to complete facial paralysis.”
At a local emergency room, steroids were administered to Ponzio to reduce the nerve swelling. Doctors told the chef to go home and wait.
“It affected my job insanely,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to be in front of a hot oven without wearing goggles because my eye couldn’t close. I wasn’t able to clearly communicate with my staff or do any non-verbal cues, which for me is huge. It ate away at my self-confidence, too.”
The condition, Ponzio said, had a significant mental impact at home.
“I’m a goofball dad. Not being able to properly express myself to my kids destroyed me,” he said.
“When you look in the mirror every day and it’s not coming back and it’s scary because they don’t know if it’s coming back, so it’s very emotional and it plays on their mind and it can be life-changing,” Leonetti said.
Frustrated by the lack of support and information he found online, the chef accustomed to the camera began documenting his experience.
“I set up my camera in my basement every day. I would do a check of facial movements,” Ponzio said.
Leonetti says about 85% of Bell’s Palsy patients may regain 100% recovery, usually within a month with steroids. Weeks went by with no progress for Ponzio, however.
“I was doing facial physical therapy, acupuncture. I changed my diet. I was doing the facial massage. I did everything possible,” Ponzio said.
Then Leonetti offered a solution. Unlike the more invasive approach that requires opening the skull to relieve pressure on the nerve, he took a route through the ear to use electrical stimulation.
“We put that stimulator on the nerve where it was exposed, and the monitoring team starts off at the smallest amplitude,” Leonetti said. “Eventually, we get to a point where we can hear the nerve stimulating because it makes a popping noise.”
With 30 seconds of stimulation, the procedure sparked a release of hormones that help heal the nerve.
“We did a jump start, and then the brain does the rest,” Leonetti added.
The electrical stimulation procedure must be done no later than three months after the onset of symptoms for the best results. Doctors told Ponzio he’d see movement within a month. Instead, the chef said he began to cry a day later because the change was “immediate.”
“Just a little twitch, and it wasn’t full movement, but there was nothing before, so to feel any kind of life, it was definitely worth it,” Ponzio said.
In the weeks that followed, his smile and movement slowly returned.
“It was a little bit of an adjustment period for me getting out of my own head of how I used to look versus how I look now,” Ponzio said.
He hopes his story will help others struggling with the debilitating condition.
“I’m definitely comfortable in my own skin again,” Ponzio said. “My self-confidence has come back. If I can help at least one other person, then it’s worth it.”
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(WGN9 contributed to this report)