- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Austin is home to pioneering nonprofits, such as HAAM and SIMS, that serve the health needs of the music community. Add another: The Musician Treatment Foundation, which aims to heal vulnerable shoulders, elbows and hands, and kicks off with an Elvis Costello benefit concert Oct. 22 at the Paramount Theatre.
We chatted about the project, which works with Dell Medical School and the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, with its founder, Dr. O. Alton Barron, a University of Texas graduate who practices in New York City. Our exchange was edited lightly for length.
American-Statesman: How did treating musicians become a focus for you?
Dr. Barron: In 1996, I joined the oldest teaching hand surgery service in the country, Roosevelt Hospital, a few blocks from Lincoln Center, and we were the primary orthopedic shoulder, elbow and hand surgeons for the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera musicians. This naturally expanded to the Broadway musicians, and then on to jazz and rock ’n’ roll musicians, music schools, etc.
You are involved in so many efforts in the New York area, why this one and why here?
I love New York — the diversity, the energy, the streets, the belief that absolutely anything can happen for anyone. I have been deeply involved in all things New York, including co-founding Team Continuum, a cancer charity that raises money through the New York City Marathon and other races, and serving as a team doctor for Fordham University for 15 years.
But I’m a native Texan through and through, and my New York patients embrace that. I grew up in Sugarland when it was mostly farmland, but I’ve been swimming and water-skiing on Lake Travis for 50 years. I graduated from UT in engineering and then, before going to med school, had a house painting business in Austin, painting a few dozen homes. Our three kids, 15 and up, had all spent part of most summers with my parents out in Briarcliff on Lake Travis. My wife, a die-hard New Yorker, loves Austin as her own as well.
My only sibling, Cherie, from Wimberley, died of multiple myeloma at Breckenridge Hospital downtown in 2006, despite magnificent care. When Dell Medical School came into being, I was immediately struck by the need to be back in Austin and involved with Dell, and to also help care for my aging though vital parents.
My closest cousin, Thor, is an iconic and loved member of the Austin music scene, and we have shared much musically over the decades. He sustained a bad hand laceration and cut an important nerve in his index finger. He had no insurance but had frequent flyer miles from touring, so he flew to me and I repaired the nerve. In my two decades of experience, under- and uninsured musicians are the rule, not the exception, especially in Austin.
I then met the amazing Reenie Collins, the executive director of HAAM, and we brainstormed about my idea for the foundation and how it might dovetail with HAAM and other local efforts.
She made the point that they were reasonably successful getting primary care for their needful musicians, while securing specialty care, including orthopedic surgery, was much more difficult. She embraced my idea to provide and subsidize orthopedic upper-extremity care with the help of our foundation.
When you lived here, were you a fan of Austin music?
I was a huge fan of music. As a student from 1979 to ’83 and then after, we could and did go to “Austin City Limits,” because it was easy access with our student IDs where it was recorded in the communications building (on the UT campus, before the show moved to ACL Live). I think it only held a few hundred people. But the Broken Spoke, Armadillo World Headquarters, Hole in the Wall and many other venues were instrumental — no pun intended — in feeding my love of Austin music. To be able to give back to some of the very musicians I listened to and who so enhanced my life is a profound honor for me.
Will the foundation be based here? Will most of its early work be focused here?
Yes, and yes. The first priority will always be the Austin musicians, and money will always be available for them. After that, we will open ourselves up to other needful musicians from other towns, especially because we are creating the first upper-extremity surgeon network around the country, because our Austin musicians are always touring. We need the network of qualified, ethical, generous surgeons to provide continuity of care throughout the U.S. and even beyond. We are developing with the help of Force Therapeutics, the first digital platform for musicians to facilitate their care and rehab regardless of where they are touring.
What are the most common upper-extremity ailments for musicians?
In the shoulder, the most common problems that impact their playing are rotator cuff tears, bursitis and frozen shoulders. In the forearms and elbows, it is overuse strain from deconditioning and overuse via dramatically fluctuating use patterns, such as with rehearsals, recording sessions, recitals, but also lack of steady gigs.
Also, in the elbows, the tendonitis in the distal biceps tendon — front of the elbow — and the outside and inside of the elbow — tennis and golfers’ elbow, respectively. Also very common in the elbows is cubital tunnel syndrome — ulnar nerve compression in the elbow that greatly affects the finger dexterity and feeling. In the hands, it is most commonly tendonitis from overuse, called trigger fingers and de Quervain’s tenosynovitis. Also carpal tunnel syndrome — median nerve compression in the palm and wrist area.
Can you tell us — without violating patient privilege — about a particular musician’s case that made it possible for that artist to continue his or her work?
One is a concert pianist who broke her elbow and had a concert three weeks later. I had to use a technique that would allow her to return to playing in a week! The other: Mike Stern is a Grammy Award-winning jazz guitarist who had devastating nerve injuries to his right arm and hand, preventing almost all hand use and all playing. I did tendon transfers to just get him back on tour; not perfect and we have more surgery to do, but he got back to what he loved and desperately needed.