By Candice Fernandez
A bride-to-be is determined to walk down the aisle with a smile on her face – after an unusual muscle condition brought on by stress means her groom has never seen her smile.
Sophie Hargreaves, 19, from Doncaster, South Yorks, was so stressed out from being bullied in her last school, and impending exams in college, she developed Bell’s Palsy – a muscle condition that leaves sufferers with paralysis in the face – and a wonky smile.
Pretty Sophie was just 17 when she noticed she was struggling to close her mouth properly and was dribbling as she drank – and after being diagnosed with the condition, she hasn’t been able to smile in three years – including when she met fiancé, Dan O’Neil, 21.
Despite Sophie claiming that doctors told her she’d improve within three to six months, she has still not recovered.
Not only does Sophie claim she was misinformed by the hospital and given false hope, but that she has also been given no information or advice over the past three years.
The 19-year-old felt she had no choice but to Google her condition, and rely on YouTube videos to come to terms with having Bell’s Palsy.
Sophie said: “When it first happened, the doctors told me to try and smile and I couldn’t, my smile was gone.
“The doctors didn’t know anything about it, they gave me no information at all.
“They told me I’d be better in three to six months, its three years later and I haven’t recovered.
“I’m absolutely devastated by the lack of help I have had from doctors.
“I found out a year late about psychical therapy, which I am now doing. Not one doctor told me, I had to find out myself.
“Most people have physiotherapy from the moment they’re diagnosed but by the time I started, it was so late that the damage was already done.
“Medical help has been absolutely useless. I really want other Bell’s Palsy sufferers to get the help I never did.”
The coming days before Facial Palsy struck her, Sophie claims she suffered from headaches at college which at the time she thought nothing of.
Sophie said: “It’s been almost three years since I first developed Bell’s Palsy and my fiancé Dan has only ever known me like this.
“I was very stressed with college deadlines and having being bullied at my last school, and the stress appears to have triggered my paralysis.
“I was starting to get bad headaches at college, which I just put down to the stress.
“The day it happened I was drinking some water, the water suddenly squirted out my mouth. I didn’t spit it out, it just squirted out on its own.
“The side of my tongue was suddenly numb and I couldn’t taste anything.”
Medics believe there are many causes of Bell’s Palsy, such as facial nerves that control the muscles becoming inflamed, and viral infections.
And despite doing regular physical therapy with her face, nothing seemed to work.
Sophie said: “The first thing you see when you meet somebody is their face and their smile.
“When I can’t smile to someone, it’s horrible. I feel degraded. I feel like the world is watching and judging me.
“When it first happened I didn’t want to leave the house. But I eventually did thanks to the help of my friends and family who helped me a lot.
“I wanted be locked in my room. I didn’t want to see anybody again and I didn’t want to do anything and go anywhere.
Desperate to get back her smile, Sophie has found a surgeon who has offered to do a facial reanimation operation called the Labbé technique, which will be free on the NHS.
She added: “I went to a plastic surgeon, and he specialises in Bell’s Palsy. The photos he showed me look fantastic.”
Not only does Sophie have her surgery to look forward to, but also her wedding. She started speaking to her fiancé, Dan O’Neil, 21, just a few days after she got Bell’s Palsy.
Sophie said: “He’s never met me with my smile, but he’s been my rock.
“I won’t get married until after my surgery and Dan understands that. I want my smile for my wedding day.
“We met through a mutual friend. I was nervous when we first started talking because I was scared of what he would think of the fact that I can’t smile.
“But he wasn’t bothered by it at all. He loves for who I am and only wants me to get it back for my own self confidence. He would love me either way.
“I am very excited to be able to smile at him for the first time. It’s the one thing I am most excited about after I have my surgery.”
Her fiancé, Dan, 21, said: “We didn’t want to have to resort to surgery but this has become the case. Although it was the last thing we wanted to do as we hoped it would get better over time or with other treatments.
“But I know she wants her smile back more than anything so therefore, if surgery is what it takes then I’m happy for her to go along with it.
“As I say it’s been a tough journey for her. I’m glad she’s finally getting somewhere. I’ll love her with or without her smile!”
Sophie added: “I’m happily engaged to someone who has been a gem through all of this. But there won’t be a wedding until I get smile back.”
Sophie’s surgeon, Dr Paolo Matteucci said: “For Sophie’s surgery I am going to take the temporalis muscle which is the muscle on the side of her head and release it from where it sits in the temple.
“I will then detach it from the jaw bone, slide it down and forward then reattach it to the skin of the cheek and lip.
“Because it’s a chewing muscle, Sophie will have to learn to smile all over again. She will do this by clenching her jaw.
“But if she is very pro-active with her therapy, she can get near spontaneous results so that when she smiles on one side, she doesn’t have to think about doing the other.
“The biggest advantage of this surgery is, it is a single stage operation. Unlike many others. Its results are almost immediate.”