Daren Meader is lucky to be alive — and eternally grateful to his observant girlfriend, Jennifer Banks, whose instincts likely helped save his life.

Meader, 39, recently underwent surgery at Maine Medical Center in Portland to remove a tumor that was pressing against his brain — a tumor that until recently, he didn’t even know he had.

For many years, the former Waterville resident had trouble with hearing in his left ear. It was a subtle problem — so subtle that he thought it was just a part of his makeup.

A lifelong athlete, Meader was often in noisy gymnasiums, where he could not hear people speaking. The same thing occurred at concerts.

“Sometimes at work, in the morning meetings, I couldn’t hear one guy talking — he talked kind of low,” Meader recalled Thursday.

He and Banks live in Gorham with their blended family of six children. Banks said that over a period of time, she noticed issues with his hearing. If he lay with the right side of his head on a pillow and she spoke to him, for instance, he had to raise his head to hear her.

One day in late October as the couple shopped at Sam’s Club in Scarborough, Banks, 45, nudged Meader to get his hearing checked by an audiologist at a free hearing clinic inside the store.

“I said, ‘The kids don’t get off the bus for a half-hour — let’s just get a hearing test,'” she recalled.

He relented, more to please Banks than anything. They joked around about the fact that a 39-year-old, 6-foot-4 athlete in great shape was getting his hearing checked at a place mostly frequented by older people, Banks said.

Then they went through the motions with the audiologist, Louise Sweetser, doing her thing. Suddenly, the upbeat atmosphere changed.

“The audiologist got to a certain test and all of a sudden, she got quite serious,” Banks said. “She said, ‘You know, you really need to get this checked. This can be serious. You really need to see an ear, nose and throat doctor.'”

That was the beginning of a long series of physicians visits and tests that included one doctor telling Meader that he had a malignant brain tumor. He and Banks spent five tortuous days thinking the worst until they met a neurosurgeon who assured them it was not cancer but that he must have surgery to remove the tumor — which likely had been growing slowly for decades. Had the tumor been detected years earlier, the problem would have been more easily corrected.

“It is acoustic neuroma, which is typically a benign tumor, but can be malignant,” said Meader’s mother, Betty-Jane Meader, of Waterville.

Betty-Jane Meader is a retired Thomas College professor who for many years taught marketing, as well as fashion merchandising and retail management. Her husband, Richard Meader, is a longtime basketball coach at University of Maine at Farmington where Daren was inducted Sept. 22 into the UMF Athletics Hall of Fame.

Betty-Jane Meader said Thursday that her son had, for a long while, believed his hearing loss was normal, as some other family members also had hearing loss. The Meader family, she said, is forever thankful to Banks for recognizing Daren had an issue and pushing him to have the hearing test.

“This woman has been wonderful,” she said. “She’s a very strong woman who lost her mother to cancer. The neurosurgeon said if that tumor had kept growing, he never would have lived to 50.”

Daren works for Texas Instruments and formerly attributed the loud environment of his workplace as a possible contributor to his hearing loss, according to Banks. A Waterville Senior High School graduate, he attended Bridgton Academy after high school to play basketball and enrolled in Brandeis University before transferring to UMF where he played basketball and baseball.

At the UMF basketball game Jan. 17, both players and fans wore stickers bearing Daren’s number, 33, as a way of supporting him and sending get-well wishes.

“That was very special, and he was very touched,” his mother said.

Daren was in the hospital 11 days after his 6-hour surgery and arrived home Jan. 19.

Recovery is slow. He has balance issues, complete and permanent hearing loss in his left ear and some paralysis in his face, but is so far doing well, according to Banks.

“With assistance, he can walk short distances, and that’s getting better every day,” Banks said. “It’s going to be very, very slow. He’s making frustrating baby steps toward getting some kind of ‘normal’ back.”

Daren, meanwhile, is grateful to both Banks and to Sweetser, the audiologist at Sam’s Club who recognized a problem. He urges others who have symptoms to get checked out— and not wait.

“Obviously, it saved my life. We went back to see the hearing test lady before I had my surgery and she just teared up. She likes to hear a good story come out of her work. I took the photo of the MRI and the tumor. I think it felt good to her to know she had helped somebody. We’ll go back to see her when I get better.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 27 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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