Bethany Bultman is passionate in her quest to preserve the musical culture which helps define this city's richness. "Every time you go to iTunes and download Fats Domino or Irma Thomas or Allen Toussaint, they have given their heart and soul. And we deserve to give something back to everyone who contributes to that music," she said.
Eleven years ago, Bethany and her husband, Johann Bultman, decided the best way to keep the music alive was to keep the musicians healthy. "The reason we chose to target musicians in New Orleans is because they represent a pure American cultural form, jazz music," said Johann. "Nothing else in America has its roots and origins here in such a pure, world-renowned, world-sought-after format and we didn't want to see the music die on our watch."
And so was born the non-profit New Orleans Musicians' Clinic, which provides free or low-cost medical care to the many musical artists here who attract loyal fans from around the globe, but who, in most cases, earn such meager wages that they can't even afford basic health care, let alone expensive medical insurance.
Preventing "death by lifestyle""When we came on the scene, most of them were simply just not going to the doctor, ever. They were self-medicating, being treated at the pharmacy," said Johann.
In collaboration with the LSU Healthcare Network, the clinic provides full-service medical care to some 1,800 musicians and other artists, thanks to a grant from the federal government, charitable donations and a team of volunteer doctors. For those patients who can't pay the treatment is free.
"We try to prevent death by lifestyle at the clinic," says Bethany. "We do anything we can to make a wellness plan for every single musician who comes through our doors."
One of the volunteer clinic doctors is Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, who also happens to be a unabashed music fan—a fact she can’t hide when working musicians come by for check-ups. "I gush at times. You know, they walk in and I say. 'I was just listening to your CD this morning.' And they love it, they love a little bit of gush. It's not a bad thing."
For some musicians the clinic has literally been a life-saver, and for many it has helped extend their careers. Kathy Savoie, the lead singer for a band known as The Wise Guys, credits knee surgery paid for by the clinic for putting her back on stage. "I had no money to pay a doctor," she said. "I had no money to pay for a surgery and they kept me going and got me back on my feet."
Hoping for a healthier financial future
As popular and effective as the clinic is, though, there are dark clouds on the financial horizon. The federal grant which was awarded after Hurricane Katrina forced the Bultman's to rebuild the clinic is running out soon and private donations are drying up in the troubled economy. Some services, including mental health care, are already being cut. "We're now looking at how to raise money in the private sector and in the foundation sector and we're talking large dollars, because as you know health care is very expensive," said Johann.
The Bultmans are concerned and vow to fight hard to keep the doors open, while the clinic staff works hard to keep the musicians well. "They really need a place where they can get health care, but also where they're valued specifically for what they do. That's the one thing I really love. Everyone who works at the clinic really loves New Orleans music," gushed Dr. Kurtz-Burke.