Not many people have slammed their heel down on the broken stem of a martini glass, but such hazards abound in the lives of musicians who perform in Athens dark and crowded clubs.
But an even more dangerous occupational hazard is having no insurance to pay for treating such wounds.
“If they’re not on their parents’ insurance, no one in Athens has health insurance,” said Chris Byron, referring to the world of local musicians, which includes him. When he’s not playing bass guitar or one of many other instruments, he works part-time at Nuci’s Space, a non-profit support and resource center for musicians.
For the past decade, Nuci’s Space has been assisting musicians suffering from depression and other illnesses by providing counseling assistance, support groups, doctor visits and physician referrals at a reasonable cost.
“Either they come [to Nuci’s Space] or pay out of pocket or they don’t go,” said Byron. “Because who has several hundred dollars laying around to go to the doctor?”
Health care battles on the music front
Known as the birthplace of popular music sensations including The B-52’s, R.E.M, The Whigs and even famed southern rapper Bubba Sparxxx, Athens, Ga., consistently ranks as one of the top independent music scenes in the nation.
Joining the ranks of music metropolises such as Austin and New Orleans, Athens struggles to meet the needs of the several hundred musicians who live, work and perform here without continuous access to preventative health services and medical care.
Byron is all too familiar with the health care battle being waged in the creative community.
Despite being a musician and working two jobs, Byron is uninsured. Because of this, his last paid visit to the doctor was around seven years ago.
Mostly self-employed and/or working part-time jobs to support themselves in between gigs, many musicians and other artists in the creative community don’t have the option of a company-provided insurer and are left with less than adequate options for health care: pay out of pocket, visit a non-profit health care provider or avoid receiving care at all.
Elsewhere in the United States, various non-profits target the unmet health needs of musicians.
In Austin, the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians accepts applications for low-income, uninsured musicians to receive primary care, basic dental services, mental health counseling and other medical treatment through the help of an extensive partnership network. The New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic partners with the LSU Healthcare Network to provide similar services.
At Nuci’s, year two of the partnership between Nuci’s Space and the Georgia Health Sciences University – University of Georgia Medical Partnership (GHSU-UGA) will serve as a starting point for potentially extending the range of possibilities in health treatment for local musicians in Athens.
Not your usual free clinic
At Nuci’s Space, the client base differs from what you would find at most free clinics. The musicians who come to the center seeking care are mostly white, range in age from 17 to 60, and are of course, uninsured, said Will Kiser, counseling advocate for the center’s patients.
Many of the musicians, like Byron, are non-students who work full-time hours split between several part-time jobs, making it hard to visit typical free clinics during their often-minimal hours of operation.
Nuci’s Space is open every day from noon until 2 a.m.
Although the center’s main focus is mental health and wellness, Dr. Kipp Hicks, a local emergency room physician, has been visiting Nuci’s Space twice a month for almost a decade to examine musicians for other health ailments free of charge. This is how Byron and his other musician friends obtain badly needed care.
A few years back, Byron had an ear infection that caused fluid to accumulate – not only causing a world of pain but also threatening his livelihood as a musician and recording engineer. Dr. Hicks treated him.
While musicians get by earning enough to make ends meet, something as simple as an ear infection could be ruinous.
“They’re making some money, but not enough to take care of a bill,” said Russell Ledford, a first-year medical student at GHSU-UGA in Athens.
First-year medical students addressing a need
Ledford is part of a group of first-year medical students and faculty advisors working with Nuci’s Space to assess the unmet health needs of the musicians who frequent Nuci’s for various reasons.
The medical students began their research in September by interviewing people in the community who have had deep connections with the Athens artistic scene – musicians, artists, performers, sound crewmembers and even health care providers – as a starting point for a yearlong partnership with the non-profit.
A local musician related his mishap with a broken martini glass during an interview with Ledford, and described his attempt at self-treatment: applying pressure until the bleeding stopped. That musician now has permanent nerve damage in his foot.
“He had nowhere to go,” said Ledford, who quickly learned that his classmates were hearing similar stories in their interviews.
The key informant interviews revealed that these musicians are suffering from a lack of continuity in health care, said Joanna Eldredge, a first-year medical student also working at Nuci’s Space.
Eldredge was astonished by how easy it was for one musician to accumulate more than $50,000 in bills owed to one local hospital. The patient, who suffered a series of unexplained seizures, made several trips to the emergency room before a doctor referred her to a neurologist. Only then was it established that the seizures were caused by a medication she was taking.
“More often than not when someone gets sick they end up in the emergency room, and ultimately, with a large bill that they can’t afford to pay,” said Eldredge.
Now that the future doctors are compiling information gained during these interviews, it’s clear that local musicians need regular access to physicians, Eldredge said.
Second-year medical student Ashley Austin agrees.
“It’s hard to get a continuity of treatment for [musicians]” said Austin.
Last year, Austin and a team of classmates worked with Nuci’s Space in a different capacity: shining a light on the center’s services so that physicians and other health professionals would understand that mental health services are offered at little to no charge. The med students discovered that some local physicians had no idea they could refer their low-income or uninsured patients to the center for mental health care.
Austin’s team worked with a local videographer and editing team to produce a video, flyers and other promotional items to increase awareness of the non-profit.
The services provided at Nuci’s Space serve as a connecting point between medical appointments and helps shorten the the intervals between doctor visits, said Austin. Sometimes people without primary care doctors wait months before they can see a physician.
In the seven-year stretch since his last visit for a full medical checkup, Byron has turned to Dr. Hicks several times when he has really needed help. Without Nuci’s, Byron isn’t sure what he would have done about health care.
“Luckily, I rarely get sick,” he said.
By the end of the year, Ledford, Eldredge and the rest of the med school team will move to the next stage of their project with Nuci’s Space. The team hopes to have a proposal for providing consistent, affordable care for the musicians and artists who make Athens such a vibrant, special place.