Tiffany Chen: Robert De Niro "very supportive" amid Bell's palsy struggle
Tiffany Chen, the partner of actor Robert de Niro, said she had a "really easy" pregnancy with the couple's child — but shortly after giving birth in April, she began to experience troubling symptoms in her face.
"It was like everything was starting to just fall down on itself. Like, my face was melting on itself," she told "CBS Mornings. "And then a week after giving birth, that was when it all hit."
An MRI revealed that Chen had Bell's palsy, an unexplained medical disorder that causes severe muscle weakness or facial paralysis.
Chen said De Niro was sweet and supportive during her health struggles.
"He tried to say that he didn't see any difference, he didn't see any change," Chen told "CBS Mornings" co-host Gayle King in an exclusive interview. "He was like 'No. ... You look fine.' He's like, 'Maybe you look a little stern.' And I'm like 'Really?' My whole face has melted on itself. But he was very strong, very supportive."
The rare condition only affects about 40,000 people in the United States every year. According to the National Institutes of Health, pregnant people appear to be at a three times higher risk for Bell's palsy, especially in the third trimester and early in the postpartum phase.
Chen said she had a sharp pain behind her left ear right after delivering via C-section, and later noticed her face was "looking odder." Doctors told her it was likely fluid buildup after giving birth, but when she got home from the hospital, her facial symptoms worsened. After calling her doctor, Chen was immediately readmitted to the hospital, where "everything fell," including her lower lip, which made it hard for her to speak.
"I got to a point where it was just hanging and I'd have to hold it up," Chen said. "And to talk, I'd have to hold my chin and I'd have to manipulate my lower lip to make certain sounds. I couldn't say 'Bob.'"
Sudden facial paralysis is the main symptom of Bell's palsy, said Dr. Babak Azizzadeh, a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon who treats individuals dealing with facial paralysis and Bell's palsy at The Facial Paralysis Institute, which he founded. But it typically only affects one side of the face.
Both sides of Chen's face, however, were affected — something Azizzadeh called "a very rare circumstance."
He said it's unclear why pregnant people face a higher likelihood of developing the condition, but said doctors have theorized that it may be related to increased fluid activity or immune system changes in the body.
Treatment often includes steroids, which Azizzadeh called the "most critical treatment," and antiviral medicine. Chen said she took steroids and has also relied on acupuncture. She also wore sunglasses while speaking with "CBS Mornings."
Azizzadeh said that Bell's palsy doesn't impact sensation in the eyes, but does affect a critical facial muscle that helps close the eye. This can lead to dry, sensitive eyes and issues blinking.
Chen's symptoms have improved, and she said she's not self-conscious about her appearance, but hates not being able to smile at her daughter, Gia Virginia Chen-De Niro.
"I couldn't give her kisses. That's what made me self-conscious," Chen said. "The thing I did worry about was 'What if it didn't get better?' Was my kid going to get made fun of for having the weird-looking mom? That's the only time, like, vanity comes into play. It's how it affects the child."
Chen said that it was frustrating to be criticized publicly about her appearance. When the couple announced their daughter's birth, headlines first focused on De Niro's age, but people soon speculated that her facial expressions were because the couple was tired or not happy.
"I'm like, 'Mind your own business a bit. And if you want to say something, don't always attach what you think in your mind as the story. You don't know us. You don't know what's happened in somebody's life,'" Chen said. "People were saying all sorts of nasty things about, you know, my appearance and me being angry. And I'm just kind of like, 'This is, like, the happiest time in my life.'"
Those comments helped drive her to tell her story publicly.
"I think that this is something that is private to us all in a certain way, especially if you've experienced it. But it shouldn't be kept so private that people lock themselves in their homes," Chen said. "And women should not feel hurt by it, ashamed by it, or just scarred by it."
The Bell's palsy has changed Chen's life — but so has her daughter.
"She's made (life) more fun," Chen said, joking that the baby already has a favorite De Niro movie: "The one in the delivery room," where she's the star.
Kerry Breen is a news editor and reporter for CBS News. Her reporting focuses on current events, breaking news and substance use.