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New Orleans Clinic Keeps Music, Musicians Alive

  • Lisa Morehouse

Walk into New Orleans' St. Anna's Episcopal Church and you can attend Mass and share a fellowship meal, both with great musical accompaniment. And - if you visit on a Wednesday - you can see folks getting acupuncture treatments or having their blood pressure checked in a hallway near the church's kitchen.

This weekly treatment center is run by the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic, in cooperation with its many partners - including the church and some local hospitals. The musicians get a paying gig, a free meal and medical attention.

Music-making not always a profitable occupation

The New Orleans Musicians' Clinic is the brainchild of a group of doctors and musicians' advocates, like Bethany Bultman. She says they were appalled at the poor health and premature death rates of the city's musicians.

"People will go to a gig and say, 'Aren't we lucky so-and-so lives in New Orleans?' But yet, at the end of the gig, he takes the bus home and makes $12 at the gig and then is terribly sick, and there's no money for his health care!" she says with astonishment. "So we started the clinic in 1998 with the idea that we would get them almost like gold card service into every one of the departments of the [Louisiana State University] School of Medicine."

Bultman, now the organization's president, says the clinic serves about 1,000 musicians and their families. In addition to running the weekly clinic at St. Anna's and its main facility, the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic has arranged for its clients to meet with specialists at the university and at other hospitals in the city.

Caring for the people behind the New Orleans sound

Bultman recalls one client, a famous piano player, who also taught in New Orleans' public schools. After Hurricane Katrina hit the city, the schools were closed for months. The musician lost his day job and his health insurance, and that's when the clinic stepped in.

"He's gotten two knee replacements, a hip replacement and a heart valve operation for free," she says proudly. "But in the old days - and I mean old days like 1995 - had that happened, he would go home and he'd die a slow death and he wouldn't be performing today."

She adds that the man's son, also a well-known musician, probably wouldn't be performing either.

"Because he'd be home holding his daddy's hand watching him die! That's what we're trying to prevent. We're trying to keep the culture and the individuals alive."

David Leonard and Roselyn Lionhart have been street musicians in New Orleans' famous French Quarter for 33 years. On this day, they're sitting amidst guitars, mandolins, harmonicas, trumpets and amps, with a guitar case opened to accept donations.

They are longtime clients of the clinic. Leonard goes to the Musicians' Clinic for eye care.

"I'm taking eye medicine right now," he explains. "Otherwise I'd go blind, and I don't want to do that. I like seeing colors. I like seeing pretty ladies!" he adds with a laugh.

Roselyn Lionhart says she would like to see New Orleans take better care of its musicians, "and I'm glad the Musicians' Clinic does!"

A clinic that caters to musicians' needs and schedules

At the clinic's main office, the walls are covered with photographs of brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians and jazz greats.

Besides health screenings and routine medical care, the clinic offers physical therapy, mental health, dental, smoking cessation and substance abuse services. Staffed by a full-time nurse practitioner and physicians who volunteer their time, it is open in the afternoons and evenings, which is like mid-day for musicians who work late-night gigs.

Among the patients Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke has treated over the five years she has been volunteering here was a young tuba player. He had injured his back so badly carrying his instrument and equipment that he worried he wouldn't be able to march in Mardi Gras parades.

"It was right before Mardi Gras season," she recalls, "So he said, 'I have a parade that I have to be in every night, and that's how I make my income. So you have to get me to the point where I can walk 8 miles [13 kilometers] and carry a 60-pound [27-kilo] tuba.'"

With physical therapy and medications, the tuba player was back on his feet.

New Orleans' musicians appreciate both the clinic's services and the fact that the doctors, nurses and counselors who provide those services really love music. Kurtz-Burke says they often show their appreciation by giving staff members CDs and tickets to shows. But she explains that it is the musicians who deserve thanks.

"Think of all the joy these people have brought us, in the city and also joy to the whole county… This is something we've given the world, this American music from New Orleans, and this is just our little way of saying 'thank you' for that, really treasuring our musicians and artists."