Gabrielle Carteris’s head and neck had been throbbing for days—and then, while on the phone with her husband on a Vancouver TV-movie set, the former Beverly Hills, 90210 star realized something was horribly wrong. “I said, ‘Charlie, it’s the weirdest thing. When I smile, only one side of my face is moving.'” It was the beginning of a two-year nightmare for Carteris, who suffered facial nerve damage—caused by stunts on the movie Past Tense, she claims in a recent lawsuit against the production company—that left her face partly paralyzed and racked by intense spasms. (An attorney for the production company declined to comment.) “For the first year I didn’t go out in public,” says Carteris, 47, who lives in L.A. with her husband, financial planner Charles Isaacs, and daughters Kelsey, 13, and Mollie, 9. She talked for the first time about the 2006 injury, and her ongoing recovery, to PEOPLE’s Monica Rizzo.
There was a scene where my character was being grabbed by an intruder in a choke hold from behind. The actor I was working with was 6’6″ and I’m 5’1″. He kept pulling up and I couldn’t speak. It hurt. After that we did a scene where he drags me down the stairs. Later that day I lost feeling in my hands. I had a bad headache and my neck was sore. They gave me Advil, and I thought everything was going to be fine. A couple of days later the headaches were so bad I broke down in tears on-set. Then part of my face wasn’t moving. I called the assistant director and I said, “I can’t control the left side of my face.” It was paralyzed, and my chin hurt to touch. I felt like I looked like the Joker.
The next day, I flew home to see my doctors. At the airport I knew people were looking at me. I tried to prepare my family, the kids. Their faces were heart-wrenching for me. I tried to lighten things by saying “It’s okay, guys. What’s the funniest face you can do?” That night, when I was in bed, I started to have spasms where my face and my neck would move uncontrollably. Charlie held my head so it wouldn’t hit the wall.
I was losing my speech. I went to several doctors. I have permanent damage to my facial nerves. I went to the UCLA Movement Disorder Clinic, and after two years of tests and constant monitoring they have finally found the right medication that keeps the spasms under control. I did a lot of acupuncture and physical therapy. Six months after the injury occurred the paralysis in my face eased. I couldn’t work for a year. Then I went to do a very low-budget movie so I wouldn’t have to go through the insurance, just to see if I could do it. There were times on the set when it was late and there was some physical stuff and I would spasm. I would take my medicine, and the medicine would make it better. I’m still working on my speech, but I do a lot of voice-acting work. My agent is the best. I make a good living.
I try to do as much with the kids as I can. Certain things trigger the spasms, like cold weather and loud music. I can’t go skiing or to the girls’ winter soccer games. When I spasm, Mollie will go to kiss my face and she’ll say, “I’m healing you now, Mommy.”
This has been a real journey, and I’ll probably be on meds for the rest of my life. But I don’t look at myself as a victim. I’m blessed that I wasn’t paralyzed forever. The fact that I have this doesn’t mean that I can’t live my life.