A Hearing Test Saved My Life

I spent a lot of time deciding whether or not to publicly share this story. Ultimately, I’m doing it with the hope that it’ll help somebody. It’ll also explain my relative silence since putting out the podcast this spring.

Let me start with a bit of background. 

I spent countless hours as a teenager playing drums in the basement with headphones blasting music into my ears. Hearing protection wasn’t as common as it is today, but when I started gigging at age 18 I somehow knew enough to use earplugs. I wore them most of the time when I was playing, but almost never when I attended concerts because I thought they detracted from the full experience. I can remember countless mornings where I’d wake up with ringing ears. I know that I caused a lot of hearing damage and for the last 20 years have been taking hearing protection very seriously.

Over the last few years I began to notice some hearing loss, and worsening tinnitus in my left ear. There were even times where I thought that my headphones or speakers were defective because I couldn’t hear as much bass and treble on the left side. Even so, I didn’t think much of it and chalked it up to abusing my ears.

In 2021 there were many more “are my headphones defective?” moments. I figured I should get a hearing test as a baseline.

Hearing Test and MRI

My first hearing test was in early 2022 and the results were as expected: things were much worse in my left ear. I thought nothing of it, but the audiologist suggested that I see an ENT doctor just to rule out anything weird. I put that appointment off for months. After all, I figured this wasn’t really a mystery. I knew why I had hearing loss.

When I finally made the appointment, the doctor recommended an MRI to rule out something rare that can cause unilateral hearing loss. While I didn’t completely shrug it off, I definitely didn’t rush to get it done. Again, I knew what was up. 

In November of 2022, we flew to Santa Fe for a quick getaway. I felt like my left ear never really “unplugged” after landing and my hearing seemed more dulled than usual. I even thought that maybe something was stuck in my ear. 

My hearing still felt off when we got home so I decided that I should finally get that MRI to confirm that the hearing loss was, in fact, due to drumming or something in my ear.

The MRI Results

When the MRI results came back I was shocked to find out that there was actually something in my ear: a large tumor between my left ear canal and brain stem! The doctor quickly reassured me that it was almost certainly benign, and that it had all of the signs of something called a vestibular schwannoma, also known as an acoustic neuroma. 

That initial conversation with the doctor is pretty foggy. I do remember asking if this was going to kill me. He assured me that death was a very uncommon outcome, but that I would definitely need surgery to prevent the tumor from causing some very real problems. I went downstairs to tell my fiancée and could barely get it out before I started crying. I was really scared.

The MRI showing a large tumor between my left ear and brain stem.
The MRI showing a large tumor between my left ear and brain stem.

I was referred to the University of Minnesota for a consultation with a team of surgeons. A team?! This is serious stuff. I remember hoping that they’d tell me that this could be easily fixed and I’d get some of my hearing back. Fingers crossed.

The consultation wasn’t scheduled for another few weeks; that meant I was left on my own to worry and do a lot of Googling. The most useful resource I came across was the Acoustic Neuroma Association website. I found lots of great information and also started to understand the reality that my hearing would likely get worse, or even totally go away. I was reading about ways that surgery could affect balance and maybe even facial nerves.

As a musician, hearing loss was the scariest thing for me. I spent days trying to imagine what it would be like to be completely deaf on one side. I wore a single earplug, used just one AirPod, plugged one ear while watching TV, etc. What I learned through these experiments is that my left ear had gotten so bad that I wouldn’t likely miss much in terms of having a rich listening experience. That was a bittersweet relief. 

Surgery

When I eventually met with the surgical team it became clear that what they were proposing was going to be a very serious surgery. I was looking at an 8-10 hour procedure and 4-5 days in the hospital with many months of recovery at home. Of the two types of surgeries that are commonly performed for this kind of tumor, they believed that the Translabyrinthine Approach made the most sense due to the size of the tumor, since mine was classified as “large.” 

They told me that this surgery would cause a complete loss of hearing and balance function in the ear because they’d be removing all of the inner ear bones just to get to the tumor! A hearing aid wouldn’t even be an option. That hit me like a ton of bricks. Even though I knew that hearing loss was possible, it was overwhelming to have it confirmed and to grapple with how big of a deal this surgery was going to be.

Fortunately, this wasn’t an emergency and I could wait a few months. That gave me time to get as mentally and physically healthy as possible so I could have the best chance at a smooth recovery. I kept a clean diet and ramped up my exercise routine. I was in training!

Even though I had a good attitude, I started to fear that I might not have the desire or ability to play music once I was half deaf. I wanted to put something out into the world that would allow me to stay connected to the drumming community, whether I was able to play again or not. This is when I decided to start the podcast. 

I learned so much during this time, made new friends, and loved everything about it (other than the pre-interview jitters). And since I’m a computer nerd, all of the gear and software was really fun to research and learn. I’m so glad I gave myself this distraction and am grateful to each of the guests for taking a chance on an unproven interviewer. 

By the time the surgery date came around I felt very calm and was completely ready to accept whatever might happen.

The surgery was long—over 12 hours! Thankfully, it went as well as it possibly could have. I still remember waking up after it was done and feeling relieved when my fiancée was talking into my good ear. The rest of that first night is a blur.

Recovery

Once I started coming around I could certainly tell that I was totally deaf in my left ear, but it was less weird than I thought it was going to be. I even remember listening to the Drum History Podcast as I was regaining some of my energy and appetite. The host, Bart, was so helpful with podcast advice when I started and I wanted the comfort of a friendly voice to listen to.

On top of the hearing loss I was very, very dizzy. Everything was spinning. I knew this was going to happen, but it was worse than I thought it would be. I tried to get up and walk every few hours and got more and more used to it over the next couple of days.

When I got home I mostly rested for a few weeks and made some questionable choices in what to binge watch.

Walking got a little more steady day by day, but I still had to be cautious for several weeks. Thanks to physical therapy and being disciplined with my home exercises, my balance improved. I’d say that I was back to 75% within a month of surgery and steadily improved from there.

Now that I’ve had about 6 months to recover, I’m pretty much back to normal, minus the total hearing loss on one side and a large scar on my head, though that’s fading.

I feel very fortunate that everything went so well and that I’m back to being active. In fact, we just went to Copenhagen and walked about 10 miles each day for a week. That’s not something I would have put money on in the weeks after surgery.

As for the podcast, I’m finally getting around to planning new episodes and think I might back off of the “season” approach. I’ll probably just release episodes as I do them, maybe once a month or so.

Adjusting to Single-sided Deafness

I thought that the tinnitus in my left ear would go away because I would be deaf. I was really looking forward to silence. Unfortunately, the ringing on that side is much worse now. I describe it as having a distant referee whistle in my head most of the time. I’m hoping that it calms down over time, but it might be something I’m stuck with. I have found that it’s a bit better when I get lots of sleep and eat well.

Listening to music is still as enjoyable as before, and in some ways it’s better because I appreciate it more. And with live music, I’m much more in tune with how the sound feels in my body.  That was an incredible realization the first time I went to see live music after the surgery. Even at an acoustic jazz concert it was amazing to feel the bass and drums vibrate through the floor and table. 

As for drumming, I did a lot of practice pad and brush work while recovering. Over the last couple of months I’ve started playing my kit again, but I can’t do it without earplugs, not that I would want to at this point; I need to protect my good ear. I did try playing softly without earplugs a couple of times. The sound was simply too overwhelming and it was incredibly disorienting to have that much sound coming in one ear but not the other. Earplugs or UltraPhones help and it’s totally fine.

I haven’t tried playing with musicians again. Honestly, I’m nervous about that because I don’t know what it will be like and am afraid of not being able to hear everyone. I’m still working on the courage to go sit in at a jam session or ask a couple of musicians to come over to the house.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. I could go into more detail, but I think this gives a pretty good idea of what’s been going on.

If you’re going through something like this and want to talk, please reach out. I’m happy to share more about the day to day adjustments that go beyond music and drumming.

Kweku Sumbry in concert

Seeing Kweku Sumbry on drums with Immanuel Wilkins earlier this year was incredibly inspiring and memorable. I think about that concert a lot and if you heard my interview with Colin Stranahan you heard me geeking out about it. Kweku is such a special player.

The rest of Immanuel’s group is fantastic as well. Micah Thomas is an incredibly gifted piano player who I’ve seen perform as part of Billy Drummond’s Freedom of Ideas. Bassist Rick Rosato has a great group with Colin Stranahan and Glenn Zeleski. Their “Live at the Jazz Standard” album from a few years ago is one I still put on.

While catching up on YouTube the other night I was thrilled to discover a recent Immanuel Wilkins Quartet show from Amsterdam that’s available thanks to Bimhuis. The quality of their streams is excellent. I hope you enjoy this group as much as I do.

Max Roach Documentary

Max Roach the drum also waltzes premieres Oct 6 at 9e on PBS. Part of the American Masters documentary series.

After missing the Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes when it made the film festival rounds, I am very excited that it is premiering on PBS at 9pm Eastern on Friday. I hope you all can tune in to watch it.

I also want to take this opportunity to remind everyone that a recording of a Max Roach clinic that I attended in 1991 is available on YouTube. The audio is a bit rough, but the content is fantastic and there’s a transcript available.

While you’re there you can subscribe to my YouTube channel. I’ve started archiving the podcast episodes there and curating some playlists. More to come.