WHEN HILARY Hardin taught middle school English, students weren’t always happy to see her. Now, as the librarian for South Lincoln School, she’s their superhero, or at least a smiling face during a difficult school day.
“It’s like the paparazzi when I’m walking through the hall,” Hardin said.
But her smiling face — one that hundreds of students have come to know and love — changed last July.
Hardin and her family were camping last summer when she began to experience some ear pain. She assumed it was swimmer’s ear until the pain and a nasty bout of vertigo became worse. At first, she was given treatment for a bad ear infection. But her symptoms continued to worsen.
She developed shingles over her head and in her mouth, which caused her scalp and tongue to feel like they were blistered or scalded. Her face began to droop, her vertigo made it impossible to walk, she had double vision, and she could not eat normally with shingles in her mouth. She was getting increasingly nervous.
In June of 2022, right before Hardin got sick, pop singer Justin Beiber posted about his facial paralysis due to Ramsay Hunt Syndrome (RHS) — a rare disease that develops when a shingles outbreak damages facial nerves by your ears. During a conversation with her sister and brother-in-law about her symptoms, Hardin said, “That’s it, that’s exactly what I’m experiencing.”
Within days she received her RHS diagnosis and began steroids. Doctors told her the paralysis could go away within seven days, but for Hardin, it didn’t.
“When my face was completely paralyzed, it felt like somebody poured a bag of sand into that side of my face,” she said.
She couldn’t close one of her eyes. She had to tape it shut. Her normally bright smile and round cheeks were sagging. She was nervous about what her students would think when she returned to work. Society told her to focus on self-acceptance, but “when you are looking at yourself and your eye won’t close, everything is drooping down, you can’t speak, you’re slobbering, you feel really ugly,” Hardin said.
Even with some of the more difficult symptoms like vertigo, ear pain, and double vision behind her, the facial paralysis messed with her head. Not long after she had begun experiencing symptoms, Hardin took to Facebook for encouragement. She asked her friends and family to share their favorite scriptures — something she said helped her more than anything — and promised to keep everybody updated on her health journey.
“I kind of struggled with feeling led to [post updates about my face], and then the minute that I did, it was therapeutic and cathartic for me,” Hardin said. “But I would think, ‘That was so stupid. Nobody is going to watch that. Why would you do that?’”
While the onslaught of support and scripture was encouraging, she’d shame herself, saying it was a curse that she felt the need to share everything with others or that she was seeking validation or approval. But after receiving hundreds of positive comments and building an online community that’s followed her through months of struggle and hurt, Hardin realized God had a plan for her. In one Facebook post, she quoted 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, which reads:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
It’s taken months of massages, speech therapy, botox, doctor’s visits, and Zoom calls with her physical therapist, but now, Hardin can see the difference.
“If I look at where I was in October or where I was in November or December to now, I’m so much better,” she said. “In recovery, it feels like somebody scooping out more and more sand every day. But I still feel like there’s a little sand in my face.”
Nevertheless, her cheeks have settled back into place (on the good days), and her eyes are as bright as ever. The students aren’t scared when she greets them in the library, nor should they be. After all, Hardin’s just a God-fearing librarian with a sparkling smile, one inspiring story to tell, and a very active Facebook page. GN