Drummer Returns Without Missing a Beat

December 24, 2018
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Matthew Keenan was welcomed home by friends and family following a Nov. 15 surgery that lasted 13 hours and removed three tumors from his brain. Photo courtesy Susan Keenan

By Chris Rotolo | crotolo@tworivertimes.com

MIDDLETOWN – As a drummer in both Middletown North’s marching and concert bands, Matthew Keenan is a fixture in the Lions music program. But his schedule of senior year performances was placed in jeopardy last month when a series of headaches and balance issues sent him to the emergency room.

On Nov. 11, Matthew explained to a doctor how a prescribed regimen of ibuprofen failed to alleviate the sting, pressure and throbbing in his head, and how directional marching techniques had become increasingly difficult.

“He was marching in the Veterans Day parade and having such a difficult time that we had to take him to get looked at,” said Matthew’s mother, Susan. “MRIs were done over the next two days at Jersey Shore Medical Center and that’s where things got a little scary for us.”

Analysis revealed three tumors: two smaller tumors located close to his cerebellum and another larger one the size of a clementine near the base of his brain.

“We didn’t know what type of tumors they were at first, but the doctor said we had to operate because the big one was blocking his spinal fluid and causing it to pool,” Susan said.

Though the tumors proved to be nonaggressive, brain surgery was necessary for Matthew, who began worrying about what post-operation life would be like.

Matthew was concerned that an operation so close to his cerebellum – the part of the brain that receives information from the sensory systems, the spinal cord and other parts of the brain, and then regulates motor movements – would negatively impact drumming, his life’s passion.

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“I don’t think I fully processed it at first, because I felt pretty normal. There were headaches, and my balance was a little off, but for the most part I was living a normal life,” Matthew said. “When I found out I needed brain surgery, you never really know what’s going to happen with that.”

He emerged after a successful surgery Nov. 15 with some deficits that he is working to correct through speech and physical therapy at the Children’s Specialized Hospital in Toms River.

But for Matthew, the biggest question mark – and motivator – remained Middletown North’s Dec. 13 winter concert. He wanted to be a part of it. 

“I’ve been a band kid my whole life,” said Matthew, who is 17. “My best friends are all in band. My bandmates are like my family. I had to get back there with them and prove that I could still do this.”

On the night of the concert, Matthew and his classmates enjoyed a triumphant moment his friends, family, faculty members and schoolmates won’t soon forget. As the audience gasped, Matthew emerged, unannounced, from the backstage area and took his seat behind the drum riser, delivering a full set of holiday classics with the band from “Joy to the World” to “Deck the Halls.” 

“Knowing what he went through and what he had to come back from, it was very inspirational to see him out on stage, surrounded by his friends and performing so well,” said Middletown North principal, Patricia Cartier. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” 

Susan Keenan said it was an amazing moment for herself and husband, Matthew.  

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“He was whole,” she said. “His father and I, we know how he’s supposed to sound. We’ve heard him play long enough to know when he’s right. And he didn’t miss a note. It was like seeing him be reborn and become himself again. He was healing in front of our eyes.”

Matthew said he still has some physical therapy and rehabilitation to do, but he considers himself fortunate to be feeling as normal as he does, and credits the Jersey Shore University Medical Center staff for their efforts.

“It was just the same as it was before. There was no difference in my playing at all and that was big for me, because drumming is what I do. It’s who I am.” Matthew said. “It’s been a long month and I’m very happy to be back playing. I’m lucky to have come out of this as normal and as strong as I have.”


This article was first published in the Feb. 28-March. 6, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.

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