GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – The ability to smile, something many of us take for granted.  For one local woman with Bell’s Palsy, the specialists at Aurora BayCare Medical Center gave her back her confidence to face the world.

“I’m much more confident to go out in public and talk,” said Heather Schmidt, De Pere.  “Obviously I’m here,” she laughed, pointing to the television camera, “So that’s a big step for me,”

It’s hard to imagine this beautiful, young mother and wife as someone who was once hesitant to be seen in public.

“So, I didn’t go out much and honestly I was very happy for covid to stay at home and not work and stay in my little bubble by myself,” Schmidt said.

But that’s what Schmidt says she felt like after experiencing Bell’s Palsy.

“I wouldn’t go out, I wouldn’t hang out with my friends, I would stay in,” Schmidt explained. “I just was embarrassed, and I didn’t want to have to explain myself to everybody.”

Bell’s Palsy is a neurological disorder that can cause varying degrees of paralysis on one side of the face.

“The virus can be triggered like any other virus and it attacks the facial nerve,” explained Karen Floriano-Heimerl

Floriano-Heimerl is a speech-language pathologist at Aurora BayCare with special training in facial neuromuscular movement.

“Essentially re-train the brain to form these new pathways so that when the person activates one muscle it doesn’t activate 2 or 3 muscles at the same time,” she described.

Through her work with Floriano-Heimerl , the physiological improvement in Schmidt’s facial muscles has made her Bell’s Palsy barely noticeable, but she says it wasn’t always that way.

“At one point I couldn’t eat or drink without drooling,” Schmidt recalled. “I had to tape my eye shut at night.”

Schmidt says her sessions with Floriano-Heimerl have been most healing in ways you can’t see on the outside.

“It was very hard,” she remembered. “I had a lot of crying sessions with Karen throughout all of it.”

Floriano-Heimerl says that’s a big part of working with patients with any kind of facial palsy.

“Our face is really a huge part of our identity so, of course if there’s a difference there, that’s emotionally devastating to most people,” said Floriano-Heimerl.

Schmidt and Floriano-Heimerl both say they want people to know the resources that are available to help them.

“I really wanted to do this HealthWatch story because when I meet with patients most of them say, ‘I never knew there was anything I could do for this,” Floriano-Heimerl said.

“If I didn’t talk to that one neurologist to recommend Karen, I would have never known and I saw how many in between?” Schmidt posed.

“This isn’t something that can be prevented but it is something that we can do facial re-training to try to help,” said Floriano-Heimerl.

For Schmidt, that’s a reason to smile.

“Karen’s just really helped me emotionally build up my self-esteem,” said Schmidt.

Bell’s Palsy is the most common condition that cause facial palsy.  It can also occur with Ramsay Hunt syndrome.