Smiling again after facial surgery
Rare condition left woman's face paralysed, and turned her life upside down for 5 years
This Chinese New Year is one of her most memorable.
That is because Miss Shirley Leong is smiling again.
For five agonising years, she struggled with facial palsy, which resulted in half her face being paralysed.
The administrative assistant tried everything, including months of acupunture.
But in 2011, she went under the knife. And every Chinese New Year since then has her celebrating her smile.
She said she used to dread it when she went for Chinese New Year gatherings.
"I used to try and escape... I even went on holiday one time," she said.
"But this year, I will be smiling at all my relatives."
Her problems began one morning in 2006 when she woke up and realised she could not feel the right half of her face.
Miss Leong, 38, told The New Paper: "There was no sensation.
"My lips were slanted and I couldn't close my right eye. I was so shocked. I had no idea what was happening."
She consulted three doctors that day and they all told her the same thing - there was no cure.
She said: "I felt so helpless when all three doctors said they couldn't help me. It was the lowest point in my life."
She was also having issues with her husband, whom she married 1998 and has a 17-year-old daughter with, and her divorce in 2007 made the situation harder.
Miss Leong, then a clerk at a shipping company, said she had issues at work too.
"My colleagues started to leave me out and stopped talking to me. I even overheard them making fun of me in the pantry. I was so sad I buried myself in work."
Miss Leong became a recluse, stepping out of her home only for work and to go to church.
"My whole life changed. I had to drink water from a straw and when I brushed my teeth, water would flow out from one side. It was very depressing."
Feeling helpless, she turned to traditional Chinese medicine.
"I went for acupuncture twice a week and had 40 needles inserted in my face each time."
After 18 months of painful acupuncture sessions, she gave up when she saw no results.
But in October 2007, her hopes were raised when a neurologist, whom her cousin had recommended, diagnosed the cause of her facial paralysis.
A scan showed she had a benign growth near her right ear which was affecting her facial muscles.
Miss Leong said: "The doctor even scolded me for coming to him so late.
"He said that if I had come to him earlier, he could have treated me with just medicine."
Under the doctor's recommendation, Miss Leong underwent radiotherapy.
THERAPY AT LUNCH
For two years, she would use her hour-long lunch break to go for radiotherapy sessions at the Singapore General Hospital.
But while the growth went down in size, Miss Leong did not regain function of her facial muscles.
Her doctor then advised her to go for plastic surgery but she put it off for two years as she was worried about the risks.
In 2011, after five years of living with the condition, she finally opted for facial reanimation surgery where a small muscle from her upper thigh was transplanted into her face to replace the damaged facial nerves.
Miss Leong said: "My father told me to go for it as I was still young. So I did."
And the operation turned her life around.
"I could smile again. I feel like I've got back my old self."
What is facial palsy?
Facial palsy is a form of facial paralysis which commonly affects one side of the face.
Associate Professor Tan Bien Keem, Singapore General Hospital's head and senior consultant of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery, operated on Ms Shirley Leong.
He said facial palsy is caused by damaged facial nerves which can be due to a viral infection, trauma or a tumour. Patients experience sagging in the face and have difficulty smiling and closing their eyes.
Prof Tan, who has seen only about 20 patients here with facial palsy in his 20 years of practice, said it's a rare condition that affects 23 in 100,000 in the US.
Thankfully, facial reanimation surgery can help patients regain function of their facial muscles. The surgery involves transferring a small muscle from another part of the body, like the upper thigh or chest, to the face.
Prof Tan said: "The nerve endings in the muscle are connected to the biting or smiling nerves in the face, and the new muscle will start to pick up blood.
"The surgery is like completing an electrical circuit."
The operation, which has a success rate of 90 per cent, takes four to six hours and scars are hidden, added Prof Tan.
He urged those with the condition to seek treatment quickly.
"Younger patients get better results. The longer you delay treatment, the less effective it will be."