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A Health Clinic For Musicians

Some days, trombonist Mark McGrain was so low he couldn't crawl out of bed, let alone make his gigs. Then he injured his ankle and was afraid it might be broken.

It had been several years since he left the faculty of Boston's Berklee College of Music and, with it, his health insurance. He couldn't pay a doctor.

"You're very lucky if you can even eke out a hand-to-mouth existence in music these days," he said.

Then he heard a radio broadcast about Louisiana State University's new medical clinic for musicians, where the doctors charge what the musician can afford - a minimum of $10 - more depending on the patient's income. It's thought to be the first of its kind in the nation.

A physical, an X-ray, a pair of crutches (it was a sprain, not a break), and a prescription for an antidepressant got McGrain up and about again.

"It dramatically changed my ability to work," McGrain, now off the crutches, said last week as he headed to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where he performed.

McGrain is among about three dozen singers and instrumentalists treated at the LSU Medical Center Musicians Clinic since it opened March 18.

It is a thank-you note to a business that is vital to the state and New Orleans, with its thriving traditions of jazz, rock and other musical styles. Music sustains an estimated 50,000 jobs in Louisiana and pumps $2.2 billion a year into the economy.

"I think it's a wonderful service they're providing," said Roger Lewis, a 56-year-old baritone sax player. "Usually, they don't recognize you till you're dead and gone. They give you all kinds of awards the key to the city when you're on your deathbed."

The clinic, which for now is open only Wednesday afternoons, is not an emergency room. Rather, it's a place where musicians can get a physical, some basic treatment and referrals to specialists.

That is what makes it different from other medical centers for performing artists, said Ellis Johann Bultman, one of the creators of the clinic. The others treat medical conditions that are caused by or affect their performance repetitive stress injury, for example, or hearing problems.

The clinic is open to New Orleans-area musicians, from rock to classical. A musicians union card is all that's needed. For those who don't have a union card, a committee of musicians decides whether the would-be patient is a professional based on the person's work experience.

The doctors and nurse practitioners who staff the clinic donate their time.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, which puts on the annual Jazz Fest under way now, is a partner with the Daughters of Charity Services of New Orleans and the LSU Healthcare Network.
"This town has a lot of aging musicians going on without health insurance," said McGrain, 43. "We're losing too many players. If we can keep them a little healthier and going on, the community will certainly benefit."