Ben Eyestone was a fixture in the East Nashville music scene for most of his life — a life that ended tragically too soon, taken by colon cancer, a disease that kills more than 50,000 people a year. Eyestone’s death was also one that may have been prevented had he received his diagnosis sooner.
He lacked insurance and getting into a charity hospital for a colonoscopy took months — valuable time Eyestone couldn’t afford to lose. Tatum Allsep, CEO/Founder of the Music Health Alliance, wants to make sure music professionals who don’t have insurance never have to face this situation again and, thanks to generous support from the music community and St. Thomas Hospital Foundation, her hope may be realized.
“Ben did everything he was supposed to do,” Allsep says. “He worked through the system and, at every turn, he hit a barrier to care . . . at every turn, it was a lack of insurance or the ability to pay out of pocket.”
Eyestone visited numerous local hospitals, charity services, and care providers in search of answers to his ailments. All the while, he knew he needed a colonoscopy, but he lacked the financial resources to pay the more than $5,000 out-of-pocket price he was quoted for the service. Also at issue: the complexities of negotiating private-pay pricing to get a more affordable rate. In Eyestone’s case, by the time he convinced a charity hospital he needed one — in April of 2016 — they told him the earliest appointment was in August. Ultimately, Eyestone’s story could have been dramatically different with an earlier diagnosis.
“Ben’s colonoscopy would have cost $1,200,” Allsep says. “I don’t know that it would have saved his life, but he’d have at least had a fighting chance.”
As a bartender at the 5 Spot, Eyestone was a beloved member of a tightknit community of regulars, musicians, and music lovers. As a musician — he was a drummer — Eyestone backed numerous acts, including his own band, the Lonely H. He toured extensively with bands like Quiche Night, Cataline Crime, Margo and the Price Tags, Nikki Lane, Henry Wagons, Little Bandit, and Killer Eyes. But like so many professional musicians in the industry, he lacked insurance and, by extension, access to early diagnosis of critical health conditions.
The tragedy in situations such as Eyestone’s is as complex as the healthcare system that failed him. For want of a test that, ultimately, would have cost $1,200, Eyestone was denied access to a vast infrastructure of world-class healthcare — care he would have been eligible to receive if he only had his diagnosis earlier. But during his months of working the system, his cancer had grown. He was at Stage 3 when doctors finally ordered an emergency colonoscopy in July of 2016. They discovered his tumor — by this time causing significant pain — was blocking 80 percent of his colon functions. It was also positioned in such a manner that surgery wasn’t possible. Radiation and chemotherapy commenced, but sadly it was too late, and Eyestone succumbed to complications of the disease.
His story is one that’s all too familiar to Allsep and her team at the Music Health Alliance, a nonprofit that works with musicians and other industry professionals to provide healthcare services, access to insurance, and the knowledge individuals need to navigate the increasingly complex world of healthcare. Working in tandem with Eyestone’s family, St. Thomas Hospital Foundation, and generous contributors throughout the music industry, Music Health Alliance formed the Ben Eyestone Fund.
The alliance dedicated $15,000 from its Cowboy Jack Clement fund, put that money together with a $10,000 donation from Eyestone’s family, and used it to secure a match from the St. Thomas Foundation. With $50,000 in seed money and the passion of industry professionals throughout Nashville, they raised an additional $25,000. Dierks Bentley contributed $15,000, and Elizabeth Cook partnered with Yazoo Brewery for a limited-run beer, El Legarto, which raised another $4,500. Others kicked in an additional $4,300 or so. All told, the Ben Eyestone Fund has amassed a $70,000 war chest.
The purpose of the fund is singular and straight forward: to provide music professionals with access to diagnostic services and care. That way, music pros without insurance can still get an early diagnosis for serious conditions, such as cancer, and they can also get diagnosis for less-severe conditions that, nevertheless, might threaten their lives or livelihoods.
“If you know something is wrong, or if you can’t afford a test, we don’t want you to feel like you don’t have the help you need,” Allsep says. “That’s why we’ve created this fund and partnered with St. Thomas Hospital Foundation — to help make sure music professionals have access to diagnostic services when they need them.”
Qualifying for benefits from the Ben Eyestone Fund doesn’t require destitution, she points out. That’s by design, because many professional, working musicians make a good living but lack insurance or the ability to absorb big expenses. Because of this insight into the life of the modern musician, Music Health Alliance made sure the bar was set reasonably when it came time to establish guidelines for the fund’s use.
Music professionals — meaning anyone who’s made their living in music, either as a performer or as support personnel like stage pros, recording industry personnel or even publicists — can qualify for assistance with diagnostic services if they earn 300% of the federal poverty level, or an adjusted gross income of roughly $36,000 for an individual. Allsep wants the mission of the Ben Eyestone Fund to be very clear.
“We don’t want people who know something is wrong to sit there, in fear, not knowing what to do, because they can’t afford the tests they need, they don’t know how to go about getting the tests, or they think there’s not help available,” she says. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why this fund is here.”
This mission seems to be one that’s resonating with Music City’s artistic community.
On a Friday in late April, a capacity crowd packed the venue to witness The 4/20 Aaron Lee Tas-JAM. Master of ceremonies extraordinaire Aaron Lee Tasjan was joined on stage for performances by a veritable who’s who of the East Side music scene, including Elizabeth Cook, Allen Thompson, Becca Mancari, Tommy Scifres, Brian Wright, Sally Jaye, Dylan LeBlanc, Jon Latham, Devon Gilfillian, Darrin Bradbury, Caleb Caudle, and Patrick Sweany. Part of the money the event generates will go directly to the Ben Eyestone Fund.
“I’m excited to be here tonight, to play some music, and to remember my friend Ben Eyestone,” Tasjan told the crowd prior to starting his set. While Tasjan and more than a dozen other Nashville artists had already pledged proceeds from the door to the Ben Eyestone Fund, Tasjan had another surprise for visitors. “We just found out tonight that, in addition to our contribution to the fund, the Basement East is also donating the profits from the bar to the fund as well.”
Those donations will make a major difference in the lives of musicians across Music City and points beyond. In fact, so far in the Ben Eyestone Fund’s brief existence, 16 music professionals have sought and received funding for everything from lab tests to medical imaging. Allsep says the average cost is about $500 per patient. Also, she notes the fund is changing history for the recipients. Every single one of them has been positively impacted, whether it was simply finding the cause of a recurring sore throat or looking for things much more serious.
“Fourteen of the recipients simply needed doctors’ visits, labs, or medical imaging to treat what was wrong,” Allsep says. “Two lives have been absolutely saved by the fund.”
Though privacy rules and patient confidentiality prevent her from disclosing details, Allsep can say for certainty that the fund is doing precisely what Eyestone’s family wanted — making a difference in the lives of the artists and professionals who help make life better for everyone else through music.
Those who would like to contribute to the Ben Eyestone Fund can do so by visiting the Music Health Alliance website, at musichealthalliance.com, and clicking “Donate.” Put “Ben Eyestone Fund” in the memo line, and that money will go directly into the fund. The same is true for check donations, which can be mailed in or dropped off at the Alliance offices (2737 Larmon Drive, Nashville, TN, 37204). The staff can also take credit card payments over the phone at (615) 200-6896.
For more information, or if you know of someone who may need assistance of the Music Health Alliance, visit www.musichealthalliance.com.