For Whom The Bell’s Tolled


I loathe puns and shun those who wield them in lieu of wit. If you could see me … well, it means my computer camera’s on again, and I won’t apologize for the kombucha-stained yoga pants. Still, you’d quiver at the intense disapproval my face exudes at this article’s title. That expression may have an alternate cause, affecting fitness for flight and could explain why People magazine once again passed me over for Sexiest Man Alive. Face it, 2020’s been “annus horribilis,” but that doesn’t explain why I currently resemble a one-eyed Wiley Post imitating Buddy Hackett.

Consider General Curtis “Iron Ass” LeMay, commander (1948-57) of the Cold War’s greatest aluminum display, the Strategic Air Command. Paramount Pictures couldn’t let a title like that lie fallow, so in 1955 it ginned up a thin plot about romance in the age of nuclear Armageddon between June Allyson and USAF colonel, James Stewart, the World War II bomber pilot who had a wonderful life on screen with Donna Reed before dumping her for Allyson.

Stewart’s talents and service to country are legendary, well deserved, and I won’t suffer a word against him. Adorable with Harvey, his imaginary white rabbit, I suspect Stewart wouldn’t have hesitated to fly a one-way mission over the Soviet Union in a B-47, if “Iron Ass”—named for his no-BS demeanor—had given the order. Back then, these veteran pilots were heroes to us Junior Cold Warriors, so I was recently surprised when catching a whiff of the ghost of LeMay’s cigar.

To claim six degrees of separation between LeMay and me is an ego bridge too far, but the other day when turning from base leg to final, I experienced a LeMay moment.  I wasn’t pumpkin-bombing anyone back to the Stone Age, something we do here in Iowa in defiance of civilized norms. Instead, I felt an early symptom of Bell’s Palsy, which the Mayo Clinic defines as “acute peripheral facial palsy of unknown cause.” My left eye watered as though dust had flashed through the open window in a slipping approach. Blinking didn’t help, because my left eyelid had locked open, causing tears to flow down my cheek, like whenever I watch Miracle On 34th Street, and K. Kringle, a pilot of sorts, speaks Dutch to some refugee kid who doesn’t buy into the whole Macy’s thing.

With the wind straight down the runway and riding an airplane that knew how to land, I wasn’t concerned about my blurring monocular vision. Wiley Post (1898-1935) flew well, using one eye … mostly. My facial integrity degenerated on the short taxi to the hangar as my mouth went Novocain numb. I knew if I spoke, I’d sound like the old prospector, Gabby Johnson, in Blazing Saddles. Sure, I watch way too many movies, but dab-burnit, I’d had Bell’s Palsy a decade earlier. It hadn’t been fun, so I wasn’t happy to feel the return of its padded grip.

Curtis LeMay also suffered from Bell’s Palsy and that’s where our paths cross and diverge. Legend says he clamped a cigar in his teeth to hide a drooping cheek. I don’t buy that. Everyone smoked back then. Eleanor Roosevelt was rarely seen inside the East Room without her stogie. Camel’s flight surgeons prescribed tobacco to steady pilots’ nerves. LeMay’s weaponized cigar punctuated his dramatic grimace, ideal for launching waves of bombers to eliminate entire cities. By itself, Bell’s Palsy is not a grounding event. If struck by the Bell, the FAA advises to suspend flying until symptoms abate. Then, using good judgement, you self-certify and strap in. I pity the 1940s medical examiner who might have tried to ground LeMay when noting that half of his CO’s head had melted. “Ah, never mind … Yer, AOK, Genr’l … sorry!”

Problem is, there’s no telling how long Bell’s symptoms can last. A day? A month? Or, as in LeMay’s case, for life? My previous palsy lasted several weeks, and even though the past is not prologue, let’s consider Bell’s background.

Named for Sir Charles Bell (1774-1842), a Scottish surgeon, anatomist, neurologist, and Mahjong champ who diagnosed his own syndrome but made the rookie mistake of reporting his findings, only to have his Class 3 medical revoked. Centuries later, a diagnosis of Bell’s Palsy is not a permanent grounding offense, but using “good judgment,” you, like I, might want to sit things out for a while.

What it’s not: Symptoms mimic a stroke, but Bell’s Palsy is not a stroke, although you could also be having an unrelated stroke. It’s considered to be caused by inflammation of the 7th cranial (facial) nerve, which runs through a narrow bone—stylomastoid foramen (this will appear on the midterm). Imagine a throttle cable sticking inside its housing, except a spritz of LPS-2 won’t clear it up. Inflammation can be triggered by a long list of viruses, including seasonal influenza B. When the nerve is inflamed, the head can exhibit a gallery of one-sided weirdnesses, including slack jaw, watery eye, sensitivity to noise, headache—especially behind the ear—drooling, loss of taste (puns are suddenly funny), and ill-mannered children pointing at you in Walmart. I can attest to all, and should you experience any, immediately seek medical attention, because you could be experiencing a stroke. Luckily, I wasn’t. COVID also shares some of Bell’s traits. Again, consult a real doctor and not some online hack writer.

Annually, about 40,000 Americans suffer from some level of Bell’s Palsy, which more often occurs between ages 15 to 60. I’m 66; lucky me. Pregnant women are especially susceptible. Mayo makes no mention of pregnant men. Women are most susceptible during the third trimester and within the first week after delivering. Insensitive partners are susceptible to facial paralysis if making any mention of body changes in that period. Those with diabetes are in the target zone, plus anyone suffering from an upper respiratory infection, meaning every human who encounters kids.

Primary treatment is Tincture of Time™. Bell’s Palsy arrives like an unwanted house guest and departs when it pleases. Steroids, such as Dexamethasone, might help but there’s no guarantee. A gluteal IM shot in my less-than-iron posterior had no noticeable relief. Likewise, a regimen of anti-viral prescription drugs might help; my jury’s out on that one. In short, you could look and feel funny for weeks. On average, Bell’s clown face runs about a month. Permanent damage to facial muscles is a possibility, biting one’s lip distinctly so. Buddy Hackett’s childhood bout with Bell’s affected his speech for a lifetime but didn’t hinder him flying the Twin Beech through a Coca Cola billboard in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). OK, Frank Tallman really did it. Point is, if you experience any Bell’s Palsy symptoms, think stroke until otherwise cleared. If you report the condition at your flight physical, our unnamed AME resource says it “usually clears without residual.” Meaning, ain’t no big thing.

In closing, we’ll jump species to consult my live-in veterinarian who notes that dogs can and do suffer from Bell’s Palsy. Although, she noted, they don’t whine nearly as much as I do about it. Perhaps, they’re too polite to elicit sympathy for pain, but if your canine flying companion’s face sags on one side and can no longer hold a cigar in her jaws, it’s worth an office visit. And if you lower yourself to the cheap pun, “Dog Is My Copilot,” we’ll never speak again. Given that my affliction seems endless and prevents me from speaking with any eloquence, that might be a blessing. But ignore at your own peril advice from John Donne (1572-1631): “… send not to know for whom the Bell’s tolled, it tolled for thee.”

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  1. Paul,
    I am so sorry the virus combo needed to trigger Bell’s Palsy inflammation somehow came alive. Thankfully, you were able to guide the Champ to a safe conclusion. Likewise, you seem to have a protocol in place to begin beating back the viral cocktail and resulting load that triggered a resurgence of Bell’s Palsy symptoms.

    Heckofa way to introduce some little known history of “Iron Ass” LeMay, including Sir Charles Bell’s obscure up till now hassle with the FAA resulting in his loss of his Third Class medical. I am sure Otto Lilienthal took note of that Hooveresque FAA heavy handedness when launching from the sand dunes outside Gary, IN. And, I am sure both Wilber and Orville was aware of these facts as well making sure no FAA officials were present at Kill Devil Hill for similar reasons.

    We are sending up requests of healing HP for you. The mighty Champ needs regular exercise as well as what flying does for us/you as one of the best therapeutics to help deal with the challenges that life seems to be so indiscriminately handing out these days.

    However, we want more of your articles being introduced in a much more healthy way rather than “there I was” situation suddenly and certainly unexpectedly thrust upon you. We are rooting for a short mending time for you and your family. When appropriate, please let us know when you return to the skies.

  2. Wow, really sorry to hear that you are afflicted. I hope it clears up soon. Thanks for the medical lesson on Bell’s palsy. I had heard of it, but did not realize its cause or how it affects the body. I had assumed that, once it manifested itself, it was permanent. Although, to someone who is suffering, it probably seems like it will never go away. Nerve related maladies are still poorly understood and offer few remedies or treatments. It’s good to know that it will not permanently ground you. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.

  3. Paul, my ears ring from constantly from hearing ‘lazy ass’ so it was refreshing and interesting to hear about someone with an ‘iron ass’.
    I’m glad to hear that apparently the condition won’t affect your ability to fly. I had an inner ear sudden dizziness illness related to the eighth cranial nerve back in the 90’s that took it’s sweet time (3 years) to fade away, so I can truly understand the required patience needed. Hang in there, best thoughts to you.

  4. Hi Paul, As long as you don’t have palsy in your typing fingers you’ve still got a job with AVweb. This too shall pass.

  5. For some, acupuncture by a licensed practitioner can eliminate or reduce the effects of Bell’s Palsy. I can imagine that the most severe cases can mimic Dudley Moore’s post-dentist visit in the movie “10”.

  6. I had an Bell’s Palsy attack over ten years ago, while airline flying. My doctor used electrical stimulation on my face for several weeks. A neighbor women had it at the same, and she used steroids.
    My chief pilot who came from a military background, told me it was common issue. I’ve never fully recovered.

  7. Decades ago a relative had Bell’s palsy and his doctor treated him by injecting him with a mega dose of Vitamin B as I recall – but the vitamin may have been some other letter so don’t try this at home. His symptoms diminished to large degree over 24 hours and after 3 days, problem solved.

  8. Paul, your Champ has auto-land? What a coincidence! Wasn’t too many months ago that I, as a senior pilot, began to wonder what would happen if the Luscombe had to land itself. Could it? Would it? Blessed with a wide expanse of luxuriant grass, I made a repeated number of landings in an attempt to understand what, exactly, the Luscombe required from me to make a smooth and comfortable landing.

    It turns out that the Luscombe, if landed into the wind on our splendid field of grass, needed so little from me as far as effort was concerned that it was both revealing and somewhat surprising, which gave me a great deal of confidence that the Luscombe would certainly be my friend during a medical emergency.

    The next morning, I discovered that the Luscombe, amazingly, if left to its own, needed little or nothing to make an equally fine takeoff.

    We’re good.

  9. The Palsy didn’t affect your writing skills or wit Paul, nor I suspect your flying. Best of luck in your hopefully quick recovery. I’ve been meaning to ask if you would give me my first ever small airplane BFR someday. Am still counting on that.

  10. Excellent review of Bell’s Palsy — thanks! For dozens of years, I have successfully and safely treated these episodes by one (or two, maybe three) IV infusions of a gentle hydrogen peroxide formula developed by my friend Charles Farr, PhD, MD, in 1987. Treatment is best started as soon as reasonable after onset of symptoms. Recurrence still happens, so it is symptomatic not curative. I suspect that ozone infusions would work as well but I have not had experience treating Bell’s with that and H2O2 is easy and quick to administer. Dr. Farr investigated the approach when he discovered that peroxide infusions had been successfully used during the brutally devastating 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic but the procedures then were crude and severe side effects were common. His research devised safe and effective protocols for viral illnesses, including episodic “flu.” Mainstream medicine has not adopted this approach. — John Parks Trowbridge MD, FACAM, Who’s Who Top Doctor in Advanced Medicine, Who’s Who Lifetime Achievement Award

  11. Have only had a mild version of this problem, often followed by migraine, neither anything I wish upon someone else.

    Hope it returns to normal soon,

    Tord S. Eriksson,
    Hon, Member of East Horsely Aerospace

  12. Mr Berge,
    I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to clean my keyboard from reading yours and Bertorellis’
    Sending you all the positive waves that I can and hoping you’re flying sooner than later.
    Pssst, the airplane doesn’t know you’ve got the palsy!
    Mark M

  13. Paul, wishing you well and sending positive thoughts and prayers you way. Just getting past the COVID myself. Hang in there. My best to you.

  14. HI Paul, I got the t-shirt when the right side of my face dropped for 6 weeks and now 20 or so years later a slight droopy right eyebrow is all that remains of Bell’s. During a check up years following, a doctor said many think it is a result of aggravated stress lowering the immune response, allowing a dormant virus to find a nice spot (the 7TH cranial nerve) to take over. If COVID and the U.S. national election wasn’t enough, regular daily activities have a way of piling up to exasperate stress. In my case I think it was accumulated stress that may have brought on my condition, and a little review was in order. In the mean time, “no soup for you” for a while, and a strategically placed mask also works as a bib, all the best and keep your p..funny side up.

  15. Hello Paul,
    I guess not too many readers are devoted to John Donne, and certainly no man is an island in the global aviation community; we are all part of the main.
    Best wishes in these awful times.

  16. Paul – You are delightfully funny and I always learn something when I read one of your articles. Get Well soon!

  17. Thanks for this informative (and mirthful!) article, Paul! I’m killing time in an Emergency Department bed right now, on Day One of what appears to be shaping up to be a Bell’s Palsy diagnosis. My esteemed spouse is here by my side, dutifully giving me the business for immediately doing an internet search to see if I’m about to get grounded. (🙄)