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Playing by Ear

Facing a middle ear condition and in need of surgical care to save his hearing, Clay Cook of Zac Brown Band turned to Mass. Eye and Ear otologist Dr. Michael McKenna.

In just a few weeks, the Mass. Eye and Ear community will celebrate our 8th annual Sense-ation! Gala. Sense-ation! is our premiere event that shines a light on the diseases and conditions we see every day at Mass. Eye and Ear — blindness, deafness, head and neck cancer, among many others.

Each year, we’re over the moon to see several of our friends — our founding honorary chair and host/emcee Joey McIntyre (of New Kids on the Block), our board chair and Boston Celtics CEO Wyc Grousbeck and many others.

This year, we’ll welcome a new friend and our musical performer for the evening, Clay Cook. A songwriter, producer and guitarist for Zac Brown Band, Clay found Mass. Eye and Ear when he needed surgical care for a unique ear condition.

As the band wrapped up recording for their latest album “Welcome Home” earlier this year, Clay noticed that something seemed off.

He wasn’t hearing very well on one side. Thinking that it may be some build-up of earwax, he visited his local ear, nose and throat doctor, who found something else inside his right ear.

“I thought I just had clogged ears,” Clay said. “Instead, my ENT said, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is, you don’t have a bit of wax in your ear. The bad news is that you’ve got a cholesteatoma in there.’”

Inside the middle ear

A cyst of skin occurring in the middle ear (the space behind the eardrum), cholesteatomas can lead to permanent hearing loss in severe cases. In these situations, they need to be removed surgically. The surgery can be particular challenging, as there are many delicate structures in the middle ear that must be protected.

A series of references and referrals led him to Dr. Michael McKenna, Chief of Otology and Neurotology at Mass. Eye and Ear. Dr. McKenna safely removed the cholesteatoma, and successfully preserved Clay’s hearing.

The outcome was a “huge weight off of [Clay’s] shoulders.”

“Before the surgery, I thought, there are a lot of musicians who have lost hearing in one ear because of rock and roll. But I don’t know what I’d do with just one ear,” he said. “I have no idea what I would do if it ended up any other way than as lucky as I am now.”

Dr. Michael McKenna, Chief of Otology and Neurotology at Mass. Eye and Ear, at an office visit with Clay.

The greatest gift

The journey is not necessarily over for Clay – cholesteatomas have a tendency to redevelop in the ear, and so Clay will see Dr. McKenna for regular visits to clean out the ear and to watch for signs of recurrence.

“It’s lifelong follow up for a condition like this, so Clay will be coming back to see us periodically,” Dr. McKenna said.

As grateful as we are to have Clay join us for Sense-ation! next month and perform for our guests, Dr. McKenna explains how much patients like him mean to their doctors.

“He’s a wonderful person, and the greatest gift we get from doing this is the gratification from the people we can help. It’s what I live for.”

There’s still time to join us at the Mass. Eye and Ear Sense-ation! Gala on Tuesday, October 17 in Boston. To learn more about our event, please visit our website.


4 thoughts on “Playing by Ear”

  1. So nice to see this article regarding a musician who’s medical condition effected his playing. I am a head & neck cancer survivior who’s cancer has effected my playing of the flute. I am a part of a community band and my condition effected things for a while. Thank good for MEEI and Dr Emerick …. he’s the best!!

    1. Hi Kathleen, as a fellow flutist myself, I hope you are able to continue playing after your treatment. Thank you for your kind words about Dr. Emerick, and thank you for reading.

  2. What a great outcome. Thanks to Dr McKenna and his staff. How humble is Clay with his appreciation of their work. What a loss it would have been not to be able to see Clay play, sing and perform as the ‘funny guy’. Such an entertainer. I listen and watch ZBB music every day without fail. Thank you for that privilege.

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