Seventeen year old Lucy is no stranger to the RCH ED. She’s been seen for broken bones, tonsilitis and most recently, a dislocated knee. But in December 2019, Lucy faced her scariest ED visit.
A few days before Christmas, while the family was eating dinner, Lucy turned to her mum Helen and said the unthinkable, “Mum, my mouth isn’t working properly.
I can’t chew and my lips feel funny.”
“The first thing that went through my head was that my kid is having a stroke,” said Helen.
“Just looking at her you could see there was a bit of distortion in her mouth, so we started asking her questions like ‘What day is it?’ to see if she could understand.
“Suddenly, my husband pulled me aside. He was sitting opposite her and could see that she couldn’t blink her left eye. He said it looked like her whole left side was just frozen,” she added.
Helen took Lucy straight to the RCH ED where they were quickly triaged and seen by a doctor who ran a series of tests, including asking Lucy to blow like she was blowing up a balloon. She couldn’t do it.
“It was a very scary moment for us and for Luce, but from the moment we arrived the staff were fantastic. We’re still grateful for that,” said Helen.
Five minutes after completing all the tests, the doctor confirmed Lucy had Bell’s palsy, a reasonably common condition in children that affects the muscles in the face.
“We were so relieved. We knew a few people who had been diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, so while it was really distressing, particularly for Luce, we were so glad it wasn’t anything more serious,” Helen recalls.
Lucy was kept in the ED for a few hours for observation and by the end of the night her face was in full paralysis.
“Even though we knew everything was going to be okay we were still full of questions – how long is it going to last, is it going to get better? And Lucy was 13 so she was asking those questions too.
“She is also a singer and was due to compete in a national competition a few weeks later. So for her, it was also distressing because she was worried that she was going to lose that part of herself,” said Helen.
While they were in the ED, a doctor approached Helen and asked if Lucy might like to be involved in a research study about Bell’s palsy in children.
“Lucy said yes straight away. In her eyes, if it could help somebody else, she was happy to be a part of it,” said Helen.
The study, also known as BellPIC or Bell’s palsy in Children, was led by Professor Franz Babl, Professor of Paediatric Emergency Medicine. Made possible thanks to philanthropy, Franz’s role is to initiate and oversee research in the ED, leading to better outcomes for children and young people.
The study ran in 11 hospitals across Australia and New Zealand, including the RCH. It investigated the use of steroids in the initial treatment of Bell’s palsy for children.
“There was clear data in the literature that steroids help in adult patients with Bell’s palsy to increase recovery of their facial function. But, in children there was no similar high quality information available – it had been in the too hard basket for a long time,” said Franz.
“We needed lots of children and adolescents to participate and track them over a long period of time to confirm if steroids worked or not. The main result of the BellPIC study was that children with Bell’s palsy recover at a very high rate even without steroids,” he added.
As part of the study, Lucy was provided medication to take, followed by a number of check ups in the weeks and months following her diagnosis. Thankfully for Lucy, her
muscles returned to normal around six weeks after her initial presentation to the ED, and four years on from the experience she is thriving.
Helen expressed enormous gratitude to everyone who has supported the RCH philanthropically.
“To have people outside of the hospital who are committed to giving so that children and families like ours receive the very best care and the very best knowledge, it’s just invaluable.”