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To Deal with Their Special Needs, Painters and Performers Can Turn to a New Specialty: Arts Medicine

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“My feet are killing me!” cried Walter Charles, who plays the transvestite Albin in Broadway’s hit show La Cage aux Folles. For eight shows a week over 14 months he had been tottering about the stage in three-inch heels, and it had brought Charles to the brink of despair. “I was worried what it would do to my knees and lower back,” he says. “Instead it caused my calf muscles to knot up and my Achilles tendon to get sore. I’ve climbed the heights of Broadway only to run the risk of falling downstairs in high-heel shoes.”

What’s an actor to do? Until recently there weren’t many options. But now, whether it’s an actor with transvestites’ calves or a dancer with fallen arches or an artist with painter’s elbow, there is a place to find what Charles was looking for—”someone whom you can really put your trust in and who understands the stress we are under.” In Charles’s case, that was the Miller Health Care Institute for the Performing Arts, attached to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, an outstanding example of the several new medical centers across the country devoted to handling the special complaints and problems of performing artists. Charles found a combination of massage and stretching exercises relieved his muscular tension.

Charles has company. “We had the whole cast of the off-Broadway show Creeps in here,” says Miller director Emil Pascarelli. “They were enacting the roles of cerebral palsy victims, and their contortions onstage were giving rise to aches and pains and reactivating old injuries.” Eventually movements were worked out so the actors produced the same effects with less physical damage to themselves. Jokes Pascarelli: “For the first time, we had to function not only as physicians but also as medical choreographers.”

According to Fadi Bejjani, the Paris-trained physician (with a Ph.D. in biomechanics from New York University) who heads up the hospital’s arts medicine research team, 71 percent of all professional musicians suffer a debilitating condition at some point in their career. How catastrophic the results can be was demonstrated in the early ’80s by classical pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman, both of whom suffered uncontrollable contractions of the right hand, an affliction that gravely injured their performing careers. Bejjani’s medical group has made an intensive study of the health hazards typical of certain musical instruments to find out which are predictable, which preventable. (To acquire more case histories for their data base, they offer free medical treatment to all members of Musicians’ Local 802.) Says Bejjani: “As in sports medicine we want to know who’s getting hurt and why they’re getting hurt.”

The research is paying off. Violinists, for example, have been found to be susceptible to bursitis of the left shoulder because of the way they hold the violin between chin and shoulder. Because of the unnatural position in which guitarists rest their arms on their instruments, they are in danger of pinching the radial nerve in the upper right forearm. A study of classic and jazz trumpeters like Wynton Marsalis demonstrated that, besides a split lip, horn players risk hernia of the throat when they fail to keep their necks straight while they are performing. The flutist’s greatest risk is numbness of the right little finger.

At the same time, some past medical mysteries have been solved. For years, the late classical pianist Glenn Gould complained of cold hands and freezing fingers while playing; the problem became so grave that he took to wearing fingerless gloves while performing. Now Bejjani’s team has discovered that some 15 percent of all musicians they studied suffer from cold fingers before performing. The cause: tension in the forearm muscles. “What appeared eccentric,” Bejjani says of the Gould case, “was simply a reaction to a real medical problem.”

Still, notes Bejjani, “most musicians who complain of muscular aches are not sick; they just want to have less trouble and pain while they are playing.” Harpist Ruth Negri had been suffering in silence for years. During performances with the New York Philharmonic she typically had to tune and retune her harp six or seven times, with the result that her fingers became sore and cramped. She took the problem stoically at first, joking: “We’re like a Mercedes-Benz—after 200,000 miles our parts just wear out.” But Bejjani identified her problem in no time. The strain of repeated tuning, immediately followed by playing, caused her symptoms. “Every time the harpist plucks a string, it is the equivalent of many pounds of pressure,” he says. “Can you imagine the stress on the fingers? No wonder that cramping develops.” His solution: designing a more comfortable tuning key and 20 minutes of varied finger exercises. “The overuse syndrome,” he says, “is probably the No. 1 cause of medical problems for musicians.”

Overuse is also a problem for painters, muralists and sculptors, who have been more alert than other artists to the medical hazards of their occupation. Using works donated by such fellow artists as Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Salvador Dali, pop artist Robert Rauschenberg started a nonprofit organization eleven years ago to provide top medical care for poor and infirm artists, including treatment for ailments ranging from paint poisoning to crippling back pain.

Not all cases are so extreme. “I stand on my feet all day,” says easel painter Will Barnet. “My right arm has taken as much punishment painting as a major league pitcher who has been out there pitching for decades.” The answer for Barnet’s aching right shoulder and back was some relaxing exercises, plus resting during the day, “like having time out in the game,” he says, “in which you just take the pressures off the body.”

Dancers are notorious for the stress they put on their bodies. “They tend to come down with stress fractures, shin splints, sprains and tendinitis,” says Pascarelli. Arthur Mitchell, director of the Harlem Dance Theater and a former leading dancer with the New York City Ballet, knows that firsthand: “For a 52-year-old I look pretty healthy from the neck up, but I have the feet of a man of 60 or 70.” Jacques d’Amboise, for 25 years a lead dancer with the same company, will never forget the night in 1979 when he felt his knee lock. “My bone got stuck in a joint, like a wedge in a door,” he recalls. Fortunately, he was at Lincoln Center; Roosevelt is just a few blocks away.

Far more painful was the case of Bruce Springsteen’s drummer, Max Weinberg, whom some critics consider the most innovative gunshot drummer in rock ‘n’ roll. Weinberg was recording Born in the U.S.A. when he developed a sharp pain in his left index finger. He played that night, and the next morning he was unable to flex or extend his fingers. He could still play, using a hot whirlpool bath and hot wax treatments before recording sessions, but he realized his career might well be ending. “I called the Juilliard School of Music and asked, “Who’s your hand surgeon?’ ”

The answer was Dr. Richard Eaton at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt, who discovered that the momentary locking of Weinberg’s fingers was caused by tendinitis. “It is a common overuse syndrome,” says Eaton, “and the common treatment is surgery.” Emboldened by the fact that Eaton had operated on Bobby Ramirez, drummer for Edgar Winter’s White Trash and one of Weinberg’s idols, Max gave the go-ahead. Eventually he went through seven operations. Today he has worked out warm-up and cool-down routines. He also wears Isotoner elastic gloves after playing. “It’s what an Ace bandage is to the leg,” explains Eaton. “They reduce the tendency to swelling.”

The remedies have worked, but as Weinberg acknowledges, “Preventing it from happening again is up to me.” Does he mind talking about it? “Naw,” says Max. “I’ll tell you, it’s made my drumming a lot more precious to me. I want to share what I’ve learned.”