Another Tick to the Surgery Bucket List

Brain surgery? Tick. Corrective eye surgery? Tick. Facial reanimation surgery? Tick. I realise I shouldn't actually joke about a surgery bucket list because I do sincerely hope these are going to be the only ones that ever get ticked off such a list. I just can’t believe I’ve actually had a flipping cross facial nerve graft/facial reanimation surgery. The biggest part of me is so grateful to have been offered surgery by an amazing surgeon and in the biggest facial palsy/reconstructive hospital in the UK. Still, a very small part is only just starting to process it all and thinks it’s largely surreal that I even had it at all.

I remember after brain surgery being wheeled to the hospital opticians as my vision was constantly moving and permanently double. The eye specialist gave me a prism in some glasses to make everything temporarily single again. But after seeing how overwhelmed I was about everything, she whispered to me not to worry about anything as there are amazing surgical things that can be done these days, should I need it. That gave me some comfort to hear but at the same time I didn’t at all think I’d need an intervention.

In March, it was determined that my eyes weren’t actually going to straighten on their own and I needed strabismus surgery for them. That alone was a shock and the first real step to “putting things right”. But I still felt my face would improve on its own. At 16 months, an EMG test confirmed this wouldn’t be the case and so here I am; very much embarking on that correction stage.

In a nutshell, the surgeon extracted the nerve from my leg, along with the blood vessel to help speed up the growth. He then did some very clever surgical work to attach it from either side of my face by going through the upper lip. This means that I have no visible face scars, just a super swollen mouth, stitches in either cheek and a very hidden face lift ear scar, which is so incredibly neat.

Pre-surgery markings giving me an inkling of where the visible scars would be.

I left hospital almost a week ago and, up until Tuesday, I was very mindful of the fact that I was limping slowly around my house share with hamster cheeks, a yellow face from bruising, a compression garment around my head, black and blue hands and arms from all the needles, a bandage that runs the length of my entire calf, all whilst spooning mashed banana for lunch. It’s safe to say I’ve definitely looked better (and just when I thought I couldn't get anymore vulnerable, I'm about to share graphic photos of this!) But that garment is no longer on, my face swelling is beginning to go down and I’m trusting that I’m by far over the worst.

My ankle has become newly swollen and so my leg is still as tingly as ever. Nevertheless the surgeon put my worried mind at ease and reassured me that everything is healing well. I’m not usually such a worrier, but after experiencing a stroke and totally unexpected complications following brain surgery last summer, it’s now been causing a fair bit of anxiety surrounding any new pain or swelling and knowing whether that’s “supposed to happen.” However, I’m working on being more mindful, having more faith in the process and still very much holding on to the belief that people don’t usually get struck by lightning twice.

I have no idea what the finished results will look like. I’m told my smile will never be 100% again - I don’t think it ever is with plastic surgery. But the seed has been planted. And by that, I mean that the nerve was successfully grafted and I now just need to sit tight and wait patiently for it to start growing, which can take anywhere between 6-12months and up to 3 years to fully max out.

Smiling is such a huge part of a person’s identity and losing the ability to show any emotion has been devastating and the hardest pill to swallow in all of this. I’m feeling hopeful about the outcome of the surgery and an improvement to the ability to visually express myself, even if I have to get through this difficult stage without any actual immediate results.

Throughout this, I’m reminded that I’ve survived much worse than this before. And when faced with a new challenge, sometimes you just need to look back at some of the hardest things you've overcome in your life, to be reminded of the strength that got you to this point, and the knowledge to keep going because you will get through this too. 

Fresh out of theatre and high on Morphine but rocking my newly fitted feeding tube.
Holding dinner whilst waiting for it to be hooked up to the monitors.
I couldn't see my leg scar at first as this bandage was on for the first week. I still haven't properly seen it through the plasters yet. But to say I was nervous about the "big reveal" is an understatement.
Wowza. My pain threshold is pretty good but it does in fact feel as painful as it looks. And comes with lots of swelling and tingling.
Head garment still on but feeding tube now out.
Home to lots of bruises from all the injections but lots of arnica tablets to heal the swelling.
And milky drinks, by the gallon.
Head garment off and I could not be happier about my ear scar. Face was incredibly yellow from the bruising but that seems to be going down fast with the help of the arnica tablets.
Promise I am actually smiling on the inside! However, my right side is once again completely paralysed and I'm unable to smile on it at all. My resting face is already much straighter than before though, which is promising. I hope.


Also read: 8 Things to Expect After a Cross Facial Nerve Graft

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