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Health practitioners swap health care for art and music

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The O+ Festival, is an annual celebration featuring visual and performing artists from all over the world.

But the main attraction isn’t the marquee names of bands on stage or the artwork on public display; it’s the doctors they’ve come to see.  Artists are given the opportunity to receive traditional, alternative and supplementary health care and it’s all for free.

The festival kicks off on a Friday evening and runs late into Sunday night entertaining and meeting the care needs of uninsured and under insured artists.

The community celebration is the stockade district of uptown Kingston and marked by the ‘O+’ symbols seen in store fronts, on banners and flyers all over town.

Named for the most commonly shared blood type, the O+ Festival employs the age-old barter system to exchange music and art for care.

Dr. Arthur Chandler III MS MD, is the wellness Clinic Director for the O+ Festival.

“The basic philosophy of O+ that everybody should be well and that we are all in a sense artists, and that we are all in a sense part of wellness so that musicians provide some part of wellness for physicians and artists do the same so we all basically care for and about each other and show each other a lot of respect for the abilities that we’ve all been able to develop.”

‘Dr. Art’ as he’s referred to by clinic volunteer and staff, is a medical director at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Hudson, NY. He organizes O+’s main attraction, the pop-up ‘Wellness Clinic’ at the Kirkland Hotel. In exchange for performing or displaying their work, Chandler says 95 different providers are on hand to treat artists to a bevy of different services focusing on wellness.

“We really try to focus on things that are gonna keep a person well but are also gonna give them the opportunity to continue being well once they get out of here and contribute to the community they way their able to, so we offer comprehensive complimentary care along with primary care. We have chiropractic care we have acupuncture, we have message care we have reiki and some other alternative cares. We have follow up from the institute of family health should anybody need and follow up for discounts services, we have discount laboratory values.”

The clinic also guides artists through the health care system. Representatives from the Actors Fund and the Institute of Family Health are on hand to explain the Affordable Care Act and connect artists with additional services in their communities.

No money ever exchanges hands at O+’s ‘Wellness Clinic’ and the medical equipment and expertise is all donated.

Dr. Randall Rissman, a family doctor out of Woodstock describes the festival’s pop-up clinic as a refreshing chance to practice medicine free from the constraints of the current health care system.

“In this setting we can really listen to the patient and ask them what’s going on in their lives. Most of health care is about people’s lives, their lifestyle, are they smoking are they drinking are they doing drugs are they sleeping right, how do they take care of their own health behaviors? And then if you listen to a patient, they’ll give you the clues if there is something serious going on. It’s not so much examining them and doing tests, it’s really listening to the clues from the patient. Again the pressures of day-to-day practice with insurance companies and paperwork, bog doctors down from listening to patients. This is an opportunity to come back to that.”

Musicians, just like athletes, are susceptible to similar types of wear and tear injuries. Repetitive motions from playing or painting can cause muscle damage, heavy lifting, moving and dragging can damage the spine. Without proper access to health care Rissman says the underinsured often ignore their symptoms or put off getting help until the situation reaches a crisis.

O+’s Wellness Clinic has even seen a few patients who were unaware they had serious conditions requiring immediate medical intervention.

Simone Felice has been a musician for over 10 years. He’s toured the world but still returns home to the Catskill region where he grew up. He headlined at one of the festivals main venues, the Old Dutch Church.

“The real rock stars are at the clinic man… I got Reiki, I got chiropractic I got totally aligned. I got massage and I feel really lucky to be here.”

Felice spent the afternoon getting ‘lined up’ as he puts it at the ‘Wellness Clinic’ and says he really appreciates that O+ understands the importance of ‘alternative’ treatments in addition to traditional medicine.

“Well I’ve always sort of veered towards the natural way but sometimes western medicine is very, very important, if I didn’t have western medicine I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you right now. So I try to blend a bit of the two together sort of natural and homeopathic healing medicine and western, for when you really really need your carburetor fixed.”

Felice knows first-hand how important it is to have access to medical care. Three summers ago, he had to have emergency open heart surgery and a mechanical valve put into his heart. Without health insurance, his only hope to have the surgery done was a cousin at Albany Medical Center who called in a favor on his behalf.

Felice says he’s looking forward to bartering more of his music for care.

“I would love to do it every year, like I wanna get my teeth fixed up next year and I wanna just get all lined up and I wanna keep spreading the word about how important this is so I would return as many times as I can.”

Becoming one of the featured artists at the O+ Festival is getting harder and harder. In its fourth year, word is getting out about this communal exchange of ‘the art of medicine for the medicine of art.’ This year over 200 bands from all over the world applied for 35 spots and 90 artists applied to do one of the 30 murals.

Artists are chosen by a panel, and festival goers are given programs to guide them from location to location.

One of the biggest murals, painted freehand no less, is by internationally-known street artist Gaia.                                                                             

O+ Festival co-founder and this year’s executive director Joe Concra explains its meaning.

“This is Artemis ascending form the quarry. And basically tells the story of the quarry’s of the Hudson Valley up and down, being the resources to build Manhattan, and Artemis is lording over it sort of protecting Mother Earth. The statue of Artemis is actually in the Vatican collection and instead of what he’s wearing in the collection; he put a nod to the architecture of Kingston on top. You know he was just a joy to have and he did it in 6 days, which is just amazing and in exchange for doing this mural, he got medical care and got to see a dentist.”

Concra stumbled across the idea for the festival simply enough over a couple of beers. He says he was at a local bar talking to a dentist who was lamenting about wanting to get a band he loved out of New York and up to Kingston to play a gig.

“I was hanging out one night with a gentleman I didn’t know at the time was a dentist and he said to me, ‘There’s this band in New York that I really wanna have come to Kingston. I would clean their teeth if we could get them here.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, what an amazing idea!’ So the next day I was sitting around a table with my wife Denise Orzo and our friend Alex, and I told her about it, I said do you think any other providers would do this because none of us as artists have health insurance or health care, so we just called Dr. Art Chandler up and he said he would love to see a band and give them a treatment as a doctor and then we called a few bands and within 4 months of that first year, we had 35 providers, 40 bands, 20 artists and we did a lot of care that first year and we didn’t know if anybody would come and it was extremely successful.”

Concra estimates O+ provided about 50-thousand dollars of care that first year. This year, he expects they’ll do well over 150-thousand in care.

“If you think about it, most artists and musicians have to make decisions on a monthly basis. How much do I have for rent, how much do I have for groceries, do I have enough money left over to buy health care? And usually they forgo the things that aren’t immediately in front of their face. The immediate things are the rent, you’re paint supplies, you’re musical amp, you know you’re guitar. And those are the decisions that are made.”

The O+ Festival isn’t just changing lives of those who participate in it or attend, it’s also had a significant impact on the city of Kingston.

There are fewer and fewer empty store fronts in the city’s historic stockade district and more and more artists are moving up from New York for the cheaper rents on apartments and studio space.

Kingston’s Mayor Shayne Gallo says partnering with O+ is actually a catalyst for economic development.

“I do know for a fact that a number of the restaurants uptown last year from the festival indicated that they did more business and attracted more newcomers in that one weekend than in 3 months of being opened. That’s significant that they can actually make up for a quarter of a season with just a weekend of an influx.”

The idea of treating medicine as a form of art is starting to take off across the country. This November, San Francisco will hold its own O+ Festival and teams from Easton, Pennsylvania and Vermont were visiting to see how they could bring O+ to their communities.

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