The morning in 2010 when Rosemarie Otto woke up with the right side of her face paralyzed, she was surprisingly calm about it.
Her mother had experienced Bell's palsy, a temporary facial paralysis from damage to the facial nerve. Otto, 53 at the time, thought that was the problem.
But two months went by and her symptoms lingered. She couldn't smile, her balance was off and she'd lost hearing in her right ear.
Otto, at the time the executive director of the Board of Medical Examiners for the state of Tennessee, worked with doctors, including Dr. Neal Beckford, a Memphis ENT. Beckford urged her to get a hearing test and an MRI and to see Dr. David Haynes, an otolaryngologist and surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
The MRI revealed a tumor pressing its spindly length along several nerves, those controlling the face, hearing and balance.
Haynes, working with Dr. Reid Thompson, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery, surgically removed the tumor on Dec. 14, 2010. Coming into surgery, Otto knew that the operation would not restore her hearing. Her greater fear was that it wouldn't restore her ability to move her face.
Her doctors worried about that, too. "It's rare that a neuroma can be removed from a facial nerve and reverse paralysis," Haynes said. By the time of surgery, half of Otto's face was frozen.
"...don't fill your thoughts with the negative, frightening things you find on the internet. Expect a good outcome...You may just get one."
"I had to tape my eye closed to sleep," Otto said. She yearned for a healthy smile.
Haynes and the rest of Otto's team were able to disentangle the tumor from her facial nerve. Otto regained movement in her face, though she needed physical therapy after surgery. She knew she would achieve a strong recovery the moment she was able to flare her right nostril, practicing with a mirror. Soon after, she could wink again. "Today," she said, "I can smile!"
Otto regained her balance quickly after physical therapy, too, despite removal of her vestibular nerve.
Since the surgery, Otto says she has 98 percent of her facial movements, and there's no sign of the neuroma recurring.
She offers advice to those newly confronted with an acoustic neuroma: "Take someone with you to appointments to keep track of information, because it's difficult to absorb everything."
"And don't fill your thoughts with the negative, frightening things you find on the internet. Expect a good outcome," Otto said. "You may just get one."