Without a Net
Tim Beamish wasn't the only Chicago artist holding a low-wage day job and taking his chances without health insurance, but last month it caught up with him. On November 5 the 47-year-old actor and improviser, whose work included a stint as the driver in the long-running comedy Hellcab, went to Stroger County Hospital with a pain he'd been trying to ignore for a while. He described it as a knot behind his belly button. Doctors performed emergency surgery for a hernia and sent him home four days later to the third-floor walk-up on the north side where he lived alone. The next day, in pain and alarmed by fluid running from the incision, he called 911. His mother, Doris Beamish, says the paramedics who responded told him they couldn't take him back to County (they're required to take patients to the closest facility) but offered to take him to nearby Our Lady of the Resurrection Medical Center. Worried about how he'd pay for it, Beamish declined.
On November 17 he called 911 again. This time paramedics delivered him to Our Lady of the Resurrection, where he was admitted--dehydrated and with a raging infection in the surgical wound. Doris Beamish was relieved: "My last words to him were, 'You're in safe hands now. They'll take care of you.'" By early the next morning he was dead. The death certificate lists severe dehydration, sepsis, and a failing liver.
Three months ago Beamish was in Germany with members of Trap Door Theatre company, performing installation pieces by Los Angeles-based artist Catherine Sullivan. On Sunday Trap Door held a memorial for him that included slides from those performances, with Beamish, a 250-pound Joe Chicago, cavorting in lipstick and a carrot-colored pompadour. A few people stood up to talk: Mary-Arrchie Theatre's Richard Cotovsky recalled work Beamish had done there. Trap Door's Wesley Walker read an Auden poem he'd found in Beamish's apartment. Actor Bruch Reed observed that theater doesn't give much back to some of the most dedicated people working in it.
Reed knows about that firsthand. Last March he was hit by a car while crossing the street in front of Northlight Theatre, where he was appearing in Lady Windermere's Fan; his leg was broken in 30 places. He's still on crutches and needs additional surgery, and his health insurance, covered by Actors' Equity, will expire in March. To extend it six months he'd have to have worked in Equity shows for at least 12 weeks in the last year. It's not that he hasn't tried: "I've been auditioning," Reed says. "There just haven't been any roles for a cripple." COBRA will be available, but the quarterly premium for that will be $1,100, "so that's that," he says. Reed wonders why there isn't some way to cover theater people, at least for catastrophic problems, so they wouldn't be afraid to go to the doctor.
"Tim was playing the game as best he could," he says. "You ignore your problem till it either goes away or gets worse. That's not a healthy situation. Art resides in the people who make theater, not in the institutions. But we take better care of the institutions in this great theater town than of the artists. When I was listening to those people talk about what happened with Tim, I thought, 'This could be so many people in this room, and so many people in this community.'"
See This Doctor for Free
At least 30 percent of artists are without any kind of health coverage, according to the Actors' Fund of America. David Hinkamp might want to add the lack of insurance to his explanation for artists' tendency to ignore symptoms. Hinkamp, who practices occupational medicine and coheads the UIC's Center for Health in the Arts, attributes it to what he calls the show-must-go-on syndrome. "There's almost always some deadline, and most artists are so dedicated they'll disregard hazards and personal discomfort and do whatever is necessary to make it to that deadline," he says. Hinkamp has treated a potter whose carpal tunnel syndrome took her off the wheel permanently at the moment she achieved national prominence and a painting student who went psychotic after putting in 80-hour weeks in solvent-saturated studios. He'll talk about arts-related ailments at "Ask Dr. Dave," an Artists at Work forum Thursday, December 9, at 6 PM at the Chicago Cultural Center.
The Illinois film office will lose its most experienced hand when deputy director Bob Hudgins grabs an early retirement package at the end of this year. Hudgins has been there six years; he plans to go back into production. . . . After a national search, local director-choreographer Rudy Hogenmiller has been chosen for the artistic director slot vacated earlier this year by Lara Teeter at Light Opera Works. Maybe for him it'll be a full-time job. . . .The deadline for grant applications from the city's Community Arts Assistance Program is coming up December 10. Don't expect it to cover health insurance--the top award for individuals is $1,000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Inga Lutkowska, Marcus Lieberenz.