It did not just happen in one day. It was over time. Little by little he found that if he was watching The Simpsons, he could not hear Homer if his left ear was resting on his hand. Nor could he hear what his girlfriend said if they were in bed and the left side of his head was on the pillow.
Sitting in his apartment in Park Slope— four rooms full of set design models for Oscar Wilde and David Mamet plays (his homework) — Mark Erbaugh, 26, explained what happened.
“It was the summer before I started my second year of graduate school, when I noticed my hearing was getting worse. Then my fingers were swelling. My knees and foot would hurt when I first woke up. When school started, I had classes all day and I was working 17-and-a-half hours a week to earn my $6500 yearly stipend. I just wanted to sleep. Then I started to get nervous because my midterm grades weren’t that great. I was worried about keeping my scholarship. School runs about $25,000 a year. And I was getting more and more tired and my grades were sliding more and I went to the department chair and asked if I should drop a course and she said, Don’t worry about your scholarship, just do as well as you can. Anyway, I go on, my grades get worse, I have a design project for a play by this great director Chris Bayes and I’m trying to finish final school projects before Christmas and I’m totally on panic mode the whole time.
“I thought, I’ll go see a shrink and get antidepressants. I get health care through school, though I have to pay for it— $1200 a year. I say to the doctor, Oh, by the way, my joints are swollen and I have trouble hearing out of the right ear.” Three audiograms, an MRI, and “like 50 blood tests” later, “the results come back: the worst! I have lupus, an autoimmune disease where my body cannot recognize the difference between its own cells and invading cells. An endless list of stuff can go wrong— skin lesions, kidney failure— and another doctor calls me and says, You have a tumor! It’s not related to the lupus and it’s probably noncancerous but it’s an acoustic neuroma and it’s really hard to get out because it’s in the bony mass way underneath your brain. Great! He said, We can irradiate your head but that will probably give you cancer or we can take it out surgically but you’ll need a period where you can be out of it for four months.
“Now, when I found out about the lupus in March, I told my chair, I’m going to have to take incompletes. She said, We’ll have to think about your scholarship. When I heard about the tumor, I thought, I’m not going to give them any more information. Then my chair calls me in and says, I have to take away your scholarship. I said, It doesn’t matter. I’m not going to school next year because I have a tumor. She said, Oh, my gosh.”
Erbaugh had the operation.”I lost the hearing in my right ear. I’ll probably have to take the lupus medication for the rest of my life.”
Fortunately he has caring parents. “They paid my rent all summer. After the operation, my mom came in. My parents are divorced so they couldn’t both be here or they’d kill each other. Just before the operation, my sister loaned me money to go to Japan.
“Now it’s back to reality. I have to start paying off the $45,000 I took out for the first year of school, the $10,000 for the second. I’m working whenever I get jobs— carpentry, production assistant. I’m actually making a lot now, like $3000 in three weeks.” His latest job was earning $17.50 an hour buying “six tons of art books at the Strand to send to a theater production in London for an upstage wall that nobody will probably see.”
Will he become a great set designer? “I’m not going back to school unless I get that scholarship back.”