Musician Treatment Foundation Joins the Fight to Help Uninsured Musicians

Jenifer Jackson, an Austin-based guitarist, was on the verge of taking out a loan to fix a shoulder injury that had forced her to cancel several tours when she received some good news: She had an appointment the following Monday with a top orthopedic surgeon and wouldn’t be paying a penny for his services. The assistance was career-saving.

“Like a lot of musicians, I didn’t have health insurance,” says Jackson, a singer-songwriter who relied on her voice and piano playing skills while she couldn’t play guitar. “The pain was getting to the point where I really couldn’t function. And it was this crazy magical moment: Right when I got to my breaking point and said, ‘I’ve got to go to the bank tomorrow,’ this whole thing started to happen.”

“This whole thing” is the Musician Treatment Foundation (MTF), a philanthropic effort launched last year by O. Alton Barron, BS ’83, Life Member, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in treating the upper extremities, including shoulders, hands, and elbows—some of the most vulnerable body parts for musicians. Barron, who is based in New York City, has carved out a practice treating musical greats, including as the treating doctor for the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera.

“For years, I’ve been treating professional musicians—any musician that walked in the door,” Barron says. “They often would have little or no insurance, but they still needed to be taken care of, so I would absorb that into my practice.”

With the foundation, Barron—a Texas-native whose parents have lived on Lake Travis for decades—is expanding his practice to Austin and beyond. The foundation provides surgical and related care for musicians who can’t afford to pay for treatment and also operates a network of participating physicians around the world to ensure performers can get help even when they are on tour. Barron travels between New York and the foundation’s home in Austin to perform surgeries and follow-up care and has forged local partnerships to strengthen ties to the community, including with UT’s Dell Medical School and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM), a nonprofit dedicated to providing affordable heath care to Austin musicians. Barron is expected to join the Dell faculty in the fall; his wife, psychiatrist Carrie Barron, is already an assistant professor there.

Clay Johnston, dean of Dell Medical School and a member of MTF’s board, said he was happy to get involved.

“I love Austin, and music is one of the things I love about it,” he says. “Musicians are often working two jobs—their music job and something else that helps pay the bills. They’re creating such wealth for us, and they’re not participating in it. I feel this obligation to give back to that group and think about how we can keep them as healthy as possible.”

The need is great, says Reenie Collins, HAAM’s executive director.

Since its founding in 2005, she says her group has connected approximately 5,000 Austin musicians with $44 million in health services. But, until Barron came along, specialty care was hard to come by.

“It’s always hard to find specialty care for any poor population; it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about musicians, single mothers, or immigrants,” she says. “This is a huge piece of the puzzle.”

Famous musicians—including some who are or have been patients of Barron’s—have rushed to help MTF get started. In October, Elvis Costello played a benefit concert to raise money for the organization at a packed Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin. The event raised $250,000 (Costello and his wife, the musician Diana Krall, are members of MTF’s board).

“We didn’t even have our 501(c)(3) status yet,” Barron laughs. “But I couldn’t turn down Elvis’ offer.”

Outside of individual donors, support for the foundation so far has come from Superior HealthPlan, a managed health-care company based in Austin. Barron is also in talks with companies interested in providing free orthopedic implants, and other potential corporate partners.

Jackson was the foundation’s first patient. Referred by HAAM, she met with Barron the day after Costello’s concert, and Barron operated on her the following week. Barron has since operated on Jackson’s left shoulder as well. By that time, Jackson had health insurance, but MTF still covered the 10 percent of the bill she was responsible for.

“I feel like Dr. Barron was an angel that dropped down into my world,” Jackson says. “He is such a great, generous, warm guy.”

In May, MTF held another benefit concert in New York City with Festival Chamber Music, a group of chamber musicians that perform in small settings. At one point during the nearly two-hour concert—in a Carnegie Hall recital room so intimate you could hear the musicians’ inhalations and the tapping of their heels in time with the music—violinist Calvin Wiersma gave a small bow to Barron, who was seated in the front row with some of his guests.

Ruth Sommers, the group’s director and a Juilliard-trained cellist, explained why during intermission, noting that three of the four musicians on stage had been treated by Barron.

“There are two kinds of injuries for musicians,” Sommers began.

“Only two?” Wiersma joked.

“The kind that only happen to musicians,” because of repetitive motions or the contorted positions they must hold for long periods of time, Sommers continued. “And the stuff that happens to everyone.”(Sommers and the pianist for the night fall into the latter category. Sommers saw Barron following a bike crash; the pianist was treated after slipping on ice.)

At a pre-concert reception near Carnegie Hall, Barron’s friends, patients, and co-workers crowded around to express their well wishes for his foundation’s success. Among the patients in attendance: a longtime fact-checker for a national magazine, a cellist for the New York Philharmonic, and a humanitarian worker. Asked why they were there, they spoke effusively about Barron’s professionalism, skills as a practitioner, and friendship. But they also said it really isn’t possible to say no to him.

“‘No’ is not in his vocabulary,” board member Randa S. Safady, PhD ’00, laughs.

Since MTF launched, Barron and his partners have treated a number of musicians, including a guitarist with a broken hand whom Barron operated on within a week and a bassist who almost cut his finger off on a Sunday whom Barron found a local surgeon for from New York.

Jackson says she’s already seen musicians she knows in Barron’s waiting room in Austin—one of her band members recently had carpal tunnel surgery with him.

“In my small world, [MTF] already seems to have touched so many people and have helped so many people, and that’s just within a few months,” she says. “I have a feeling this foundation is probably going to make it possible for a lot of us to continue doing what we love to do.”

That’s the idea, Barron says. “It’s not rocket science,” he says. “It’s getting them in the door. As long as we have money to pay for it, we’ll keep doing this.”

 
 
 

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