WEST TOWN — Jason Patera had been feeling off for two years.
Patera was having balance issues, numbness in his face and trouble hearing. He thought he might have to get a hearing aid after decades spent playing and teaching music at the Chicago Academy for the Arts in West Town, where he’s now the head of school.
“The ringing kind of came and went, and then I noticed my hearing getting bad. I saw some hearing specialists who all thought, ‘Well, you just need hearing aids. Of course your hearing’s bad, you’re a former rock-n-roll drummer,’” he said in February.
But after a series of doctors visits and an MRI in January, a more dire diagnosis emerged: Doctors told Patera he had a tumor “about the size of a golf ball” between his brainstem and right ear.
“They told me I didn’t have to have surgery the next day, but that I wasn’t going to be putting this off for any length of time,” he said.
Patera went into Northwestern Hospital for a 12-hour surgery in early February, he said.
Patera took eight weeks off work to recover. It was the longest break he’s had from the Chicago Academy for the Arts, where he starting teaching piano and drums in 1998 before becoming an administrator.
During his time off, Patera mostly read and went on walks. One day, he wandered into a Guitar Center, eager to test his hand at his lifelong passion of playing the drums.
“It was terrible,” he said.
“I could have laid down a better groove if I had rolled the drums down the stairs. And I was embarrassed. I felt like telling everybody, ‘No, no, no, I’m good at this. I’m a professional. I have a degree in this!’ And it was really discouraging in that moment to think, ‘OK, I can’t get my hands and my feet to do something I know that they can do.'”
Patera’s motor functioning has improved with time, and he has slowing dabbled with piano and guitar.
“I’m not able to entertain you with my best Bon Jovi licks at a party yet, but soon,” he said, laughing.
Patera returned to the school April 18. He said his recovery is going well with a few lingering, yet mostly manageable, issues.
“The biggest problem has been some facial paralysis; the whole right side of my face doesn’t work. It’s difficult to talk. It’s difficult to chew, and I can’t blink,” he said. “We never realize how often we need to blink until we can’t. So the eyesight and the management of all that has been really tricky, but … given the severity of what happened, if you had told me that these would be my problems 10 weeks out, I would have signed up for that all day long.”
Patera has been cleared by his doctors to resume normal activity. Still, there are a few practical issues that pop up every day.
“I don’t eat publicly because most of my lunch ends up on my shirt. I go in my office and hide when I try to eat some soup,” he said.
While the hearing in Patera’s right ear will never return, the facial paralysis will fade in the next year and a half, he said.
Patera is “incredibly grateful” to be back at work, and he said he feels revitalized by the creative pursuits of his students. He sees his experience and others like it as a reminder to embrace the unknown and all that comes with it, he said.
“Whatever is in front of us, whether we have a job that we love, and we’re surrounded by amazing people, or we’re entering a life-altering surgery, whatever it is, the path is the teacher,” he said. “And if we go into that curious and openminded and openhearted, we’re going to learn a whole lot about ourselves and how to just be in life.
“I started thinking about that a lot during COVID; and, certainly during my recovery, that’s been very poignant.”
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