The Eye of Freeman Vines
inTheir Needson January 12, 2021
A few weeks ago, one of Music Maker’s most important partner artists, Freeman Vines, lost his right eye.
And this is not a story about a sudden emergency that brought on the surgery to remove his eye. It’s a story about how difficult it is for the poor and elderly to get access to the medical care they need.
From the day I met Freeman in 2015, I could tell something was wrong with his right eye. He always squinted that eye, always wore dark sunglasses, and he hated being in the sun. By the end of 2016, I finally persuaded him to take his problem to an eye doctor.
Throughout my 26 years of building relationships with artists such as Freeman, I’ve learned hundreds of lessons about the hardships these people face. But it wasn’t until we began seeking care for Freeman’s eye that I learned how the medical establishment too often turns a blind eye — pun fully intended — on the disenfranchised.
I went with Freeman to that first appointment, and the doctor did nothing more than examine the eye and send him home with a bottle of eye drops. Freeman’s sisters or I took him to a series of appointments at various doctor’s offices and eye clinics over the next four years, but none of them yielded more.
What finally changed Freeman’s situation was the appearance in his life of a caregiver named Julia Smith, who worked part time in the R.A. Fountain General Store in Fountain, North Carolina. She had gotten to know Freeman gradually after we helped him set up his new studio — next door to the general store — in downtown Fountain.
Alex Albright, who owns the general store, first told Julia about their new neighbor who made guitars.
“I would just go over every couple of days just to say ‘Hey’ and see how he was doing,” Julia says. “And he always had stories.” That’s what Freeman does. He tells stories. Those stories fill our Hanging Tree Guitars book.
“Of course, I could see when he was having issues,” Julia says. “And he would tell me when he was having issues, the biggest thing being his eye. So I just said, ‘If you need me to do something, need me to help you, take you somewhere or get your medicine or whatever you need, just let me know.’”
The pain in Freeman’s eye had increased over the years, and I believe the trust he had built with Julia gave him the confidence to be honest with someone about his pain and the need to address it. Julia remembers a particular phone call.
“He called me one morning at eight o’clock in the morning, and that was unusual in itself,” Julia says. “He said, ‘There’s something wrong with my eye and I need help.’ So I just took it from there. He can’t read very well because of his eyes, he can’t walk very well because he can’t see very well. And, of course, driving is not an option, especially when you get into the larger towns where the doctors are.So I just kind of took over things and said, ‘I’m going to make the appointment. I’ll get you over there, and we’ll do whatever they tell us to do.’
“I felt like I needed to go with him wherever he went to make sure the doctors understood exactly what was going on,” she continues. “I thought he needed somebody who could come in, take notes, talk with the doctors and then go back and be able to tell him what they said. And tell him what the instructions were and what the plans were and talk with him about it. I just think that’s a help for somebody who’s just not used to being in that situation.”
For years, Freeman had suffered that pain, and I believe Julia understood that he could never get past it without direct help.
Julia remembers a conversation between Freeman and a nurse at the last visit before the decision was made to remove the eye.
“One of the nurses asked him at some point, ‘From zero to 10, what’s your pain level?’” Julia recalls. “And he said, ‘I can’t answer that question.’ He said, ‘It has hurt for so long that I don’t know a range. I don’t know a number.’ And so I told the nurse, ‘I’m going to tell you what I interpret that as. From zero to 10, his pain level right now is a 15, and it hasn’t been lower than that in a really long time.’”
When the doctor came in to examine Freeman’s eye, he finally delivered the news that it would need to come out. He was afraid the eye had become infected and worried the infection might spread through Freeman’s body.
Soon after, Freeman entered Duke University Hospital to have his right eye removed. That was a few weeks ago, and Julia still sees Freeman almost every day. She says his attitude is good, despite the difficulty of learning to function with a single eye, and that his condition is improving.
This is good news to all of us at Music Maker, because we love Freeman so deeply, but his experience over the last several years reminds us acutely of the difficulties that so many elderly people face as they fight to get the medical care they deserved.
Julia’s been a caregiver since long before she worked with Freeman, and she has an entire catalog of those obstacles. The first one, she says, is the simple difficulty the elderly have in navigating their way into medical facilities, particularly large ones. The plethora of signs, the problem of navigating into a facility from a distant parking deck, etc., is overwhelming. Medical workers too often lack bedside manner, talking quickly and using medical terminology that’s hard for the elderly to understand. The paperwork required after every visit and procedure is overwhelming. Scheduling appointments within a reasonable time frame is almost impossible. Increasingly, medical staff use technology such as text messaging, email, and web portals that stymy the ability of elderly people to communicate with those who take care of them. Finally, there is the issue of getting the supplies patients need after they a procedure. Julia saw this clearly in Freeman’s case.
“He needed warm compresses, cold compresses, medical gloves to be able to put medicine on his eye in a sanitary manner,” she says. “All of this was learn-as-you-go. I know doctors and hospitals can’t do a service like this, but wouldn’t it be great if they had a bag of the needed supplies to give to the patient as he walks out the door? It wouldn’t have to be a long-term supply, but just enough to get started.”
We could never thank Julia Smith enough for her persistence in getting Freeman the care he needed. And her experience reminds us we must pay strict attention to the medical needs of our partner artists. These people are the unsung heroes of the American musical tradition. They deserve our best.
— Tim Duffy