May 03, 1999 12:00 PM

In the spring of 1995 life seemed especially sweet to Jenny Craig. In her second husband, Sid, to whom she had been married for 16 years, she had found, she says, “a loving partner.” And with two children and eight grandchildren, she knew she had been blessed with “a beautiful, healthy family.” Then, too, there was her business empire. Craig was the founder and spokeswoman for Jenny Craig, Inc., a chain of 769 diet centers worldwide that last year had revenues of $350 million.

But in April 1995, while dozing in her favorite chair, Craig, then 62, fell victim to a freak accident. Awakened abruptly by the sound of the TV, she snapped her head back so suddenly that she injured the muscles in her jaw. Within days she was having trouble talking, and over time her speech became markedly slurred.

No longer able to serve as her company’s spokeswoman, Craig retreated from public view. “I just couldn’t do the PR anymore,” she recalls. “No more commercials, no more training.” For the next three years she sought a cure, but none of the doctors she consulted had ever seen a patient with her symptoms. Then, last spring, a friend referred Craig to Dr. Dennis M. Nigro. An Encinitas, Calif., surgeon who specializes in facial deformities, he surgically reconstructed Craig’s facial and jaw muscles. “I’ve performed 20,000 to 30,000 procedures in my career,” says Nigro. “I’ve seen similar, but never this profound a problem.” Today, Craig’s speech is much improved, but she still undergoes arduous therapy three times a week. At her sprawling Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., home, she discussed her battle to regain her speech with staff correspondent Monica Rizzo.

It was a beautiful day in 1995, the week before Easter. Just like any other day, I had gone in to the office and left to go to my Pilates [exercise] class around 4 p.m. That night, Sid and I went to a movie. When we came home, I turned on the news while Sid went off to bed.

I was sitting upright in a chair watching TV when I started to doze off. My head dropped forward, and my chin fell onto my chest. Then, suddenly, the volume on the television got really loud and startled me awake. Apparently my mouth fell slightly open when I fell asleep. When I woke up from the noise my head jerked up and, simultaneously, my lower jaw snapped shut and locked over my top teeth. I couldn’t move my jaw at all. I was scared to death. I had to use both hands to pry it down. The sensation on the sides of my mouth felt like two rubber bands had snapped on my face. I thought, “God, what in the world happened?” The next couple of days I still had a slight stinging sensation. But then I started to lose control of my lower jaw. Every time I talked, my lower teeth would hit my upper teeth and send shocks up into my face. It felt like when you’re at the dentist, and he’s drilling, and you have a nerve exposed. I thought it would go away, but it didn’t. I went to my dentist, who said, “Let’s just watch it.” For about a week I used my tongue to keep the teeth from hitting together, and I developed a lisp.

Soon, on my dentist’s recommendation, I went to a TMJ (temporomandibular joint syndrome, a disorder that affects the jaw area) specialist, who told me that the cartilage that connects my lower jaw to my skull had apparently snapped out of joint. Scar tissue was forming, and he couldn’t do anything about it. He gave me a mouth guard to keep my upper and lower teeth from hitting each other. But within a couple more weeks, it felt like my jaw was floating. I had to use my tongue to control it. I was still able to eat. When I was clenching my jaw, I was fine. But every time I spoke, things came out all garbled. One of my friends said, “Jenny, I didn’t know you’d had a stroke.” I said, “I didn’t.”

Before this happened, I used to appear on talk shows and travel to promote the centers and my books. But I realized I wouldn’t be able to continue in my condition. I became self-conscious, but I was more frustrated than embarrassed. I’m not one to wallow in my misery, and by the end of 1995, I was on a mission. I thought, “Somewhere, there has to be someone who can fix this.” I looked on the Internet and bought books and made appointments with specialists. I saw an acupuncturist and a neurologist. I had an MRI on my brain to rule out a stroke. One doctor recommended speech therapy, another Botox injections. Every doctor gave me a different story and a different diagnosis. I wanted to pull my hair out.

Finally, on another doctor’s recommendation, I went to a physical therapist. I later learned that that was probably the worst thing I could have done. The therapist stretched my jaw, telling me how tight it was. Eventually I got to a point where my facial muscles were stretched to the point of being practically useless. At least I wasn’t in a lot of pain.

In the meantime I was trying to go to work as if everything was normal, going to board meetings and doing paperwork in my office. My friends couldn’t believe I was trying to continue my life with such a handicap. Sid even said to me one night, “Jenny, why don’t you just accept this?” I said, “Sid, I’m going to keep trying things until I find a solution.” I decided I could approach it two ways. I could withdraw like a hermit, stay inside and not see people.

But when I make up my mind to do something, I do it. That attitude helped me lose weight. And it was that mind-set that helped me deal with this situation.

Then, last spring, a friend of mine who went to Dr. Dennis M. Nigro for cosmetic surgery told me how he had cut inside her mouth to tighten her facial muscles. At our first consultation, with both of his hands, Dr. Nigro held my jaw and cheeks up and asked me to talk. For the first time in years I could speak clearly. I couldn’t believe it! That’s when he told me, “Jenny, you’ve stretched your muscles.” He said he’d never seen anything like this. “No kidding,” I thought. “I’ve heard that line from 18 others before you!”

Dr. Nigro told me he thought he could tighten my facial muscles by drilling into my cheekbones from the inside out, anchoring the muscles to my cheekbones and holding them in place with two bioabsorbable screws. My first reaction was, “Great! Let’s go for it!” In early June 1998 I had a 4½-hour operation. When I came out, I looked like an alien. My face was swollen and black and blue. My eyes were completely bloodshot. I looked so awful. I was in pain, but most of all, I was scared. Was the operation a success? Nobody knew. All I was told was that I would start speech therapy in two weeks because the pathways to my brain that control facial muscles had been destroyed. In other words, I was going to have to learn how to talk all over again.

My speech therapist Marlowe K. Fischer said I had developed bad habits to compensate for my injured jaw, like using my tongue to hold my mouth in place when I talked. Last June she started coming to the house for 90-minute sessions seven days a week. In the beginning I had to do exercises for as much as five hours a day to help strengthen the muscles, holding my jaw steady, strengthening my tongue and forming shapes with my lips. Marlowe tells me I will have arrived when I don’t have to think about speaking, when it just happens normally. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m making good progress.

I practice in front of a mirror every chance I get, even when I pull up to a stoplight. Sometimes I get tired, and if I talk a lot, my jaw starts locking. Sometimes I have a tug-of-war with my lower lip because it wants to curl in, and I have to fight to keep it out to make my speech clearer. Other times I feel like not talking at all, which is very hard for me. Just ask Sid!

I want my recuperation to happen as fast as it can, but I’ve accepted that I won’t be able to continue as the company’s commercial spokeswoman. I’m ready to pass that duty to my daughter [Denise Altholz, 43]. It’s funny, the things we take for granted. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you never know what’s going to happen in life. What this experience has taught me is not to postpone pleasure. Life should be enjoyed to the fullest. I’m trying to spend more time with my grandkids, and I’m planning a big trip to France this summer. I’ll continue with my speech therapy for as long as necessary. For all I know, I could be doing this the rest of my life. But if that’s what it takes, then I’m prepared to do it.

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