By Kristin Rothwell, NurseZone Feature Writer
It’s almost performance time at the local amphitheater. While the featured group is setting up its instruments, checking sound and prepping voices for the night’s performance, the venue’s rock medicine group is also preparing for its gig. Staff fine tune instruments and decide who will lead the performance and who will play backup, as nurses and other medical staff prepare to perform for patients.
Whether they’re circulating among the crowds at concerts or running the concert medical stations, rock medicine staff keep a watchful eye for people who may need their assistance. Sporting first aid kits and a radio for backup help, they offer everything from sunscreen and bandages to psychiatric help and emergency care to concert-goers. In fact, some rock medicine teams even have their own “groupies” who often command a repeat performance by the rock med staff at various concerts.
Rock Medicine: Beginning of a Healthcare Legacy
The aptly named medical team "Rock Medicine" was founded in 1973 as part of a partnership between the staff at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco, California, and the late legendary concert promoter Bill Graham. While the numerous rock medicine groups in the United States were not formed at the same time, they were primarily established after learning of incidences at the 1969 Woodstock concert and other concerts that followed where medical care was needed but not present.
Today, the Rock Medicine group has more than 400 active volunteers who provide care for a few to a few hundred patients at nearly 200 events in the Bay area and Sacramento valley each year.
“We set up an interesting hospital,” said Kathy Ferris, RN, BSN, who has been with Rock Medicine for 22 years. Described as tents that look much like an army hospital, smaller concerts offer a treatment and triage area, while larger concerts require a first aid station or a “dugout,” three treatment rooms for an orthopedics, trauma and medical unit, and a talk down area, known as the “space station” by Rock Medicine staff, where those experiencing intense psychedelic reactions can receive help.
“Rock Medicine is the freest access to medical care someone will ever experience,” said Ferris, who volunteers at 30 to 60 concerts per year in addition to working full-time as an infection control coordinator for the Contra Costa Regional Health Center. “It gives people a chance to practice good healthcare without worrying about who’s paying for it. It’s really unique and an honor to be a visible part of the free-clinic, which is based on the principle that healthcare should be free and non-judgmental.
“Rock Medicine also offers an interesting nursing experience since physicians will often ask us to handle things, which creates a more collegial team environment. In fact, several paramedics and other volunteers have gone on to nursing school because of what they’ve seen nurses do with Rock Medicine.”
During the days of the Grateful Dead following, Ferris often saw the same patients at different concert locations, allowing her and other Rock Medicine staff to conduct follow-up treatments.”
“I miss the Deadheads,” said Ferris. “They were our most interesting patients. Over the years, they and other patients have come back to us to say ‘thank you’ or given us things such as shirts they’d made.”
Despite not being paid, the perks are great, according to Ferris. “My old friends [with Rock Medicine] keep me coming back, plus the music, such as Jimmy Buffett and Eric Clapton. It also gives me the ability to do hands-on nursing.”
She added, “I’m a little old for heavy metal, but I love it.”
Northwest Rock Medicine: Northwest Music Lovers’ HMO
Since 1995, Northwest Rock Medicine has provided care at concerts ranging from the Grateful Dead and Phish to Metallica and the Warped Tour. Begun in Portland, Oregon, by Robert Zalunardo, a EMT-Paramedic (who has since gone into the culinary arts), along with his friends and fellow medics, it has grown into an organization with more than 160 volunteers.
Now led by Northwest Rock Medicine director Seth Grant, the organization continues to provide non-profit healthcare services at concerts, indoor and outdoor venues, sports events and all-night raves to keep the crowds safe and to take the burden off of emergency medical services and hospital systems.
“Everyone involved in Northwest Rock Medicine is very influential and a great group of people,” said Jamie Baxter, RN, a volunteer with the group for two years. “We are a family who work closely together, communicating verbally and non-verbally, which takes a good amount of team work to do well.”
Before each event, the volunteers, made up of nurse practitioners, EMTs, specialists and physicians, decide who will cover what tasks according to the skill level of the volunteer and the mix of volunteers available.
“Though we may have varying titles in our professional lives, we are all the same and on equal footing when we’re at an event,” said Baxter, who enjoys the positive attitude and non-judgmental aspects of the group.
Based on their skills, the volunteers tend to lacerations, abrasions, sprains, dislocations, drug overdoses and, though not common, sexual assaults. They also conduct regular bathroom checks to look for people who are ill and make sure people have a safe ride home.
“Being an ER nurse there’s probably nothing that I haven’t seen or that’s been out of the ordinary,” said Baxter, “but I like that we [Northwest Rock Medicine] do what we can – and maybe even have an impact on that one person.”
Aviva Rock Medicine: Service is Love in Work Clothes
Founded and directed by Daphne Singingtree, CPM, LM, Aviva Rock Medicine not only treats hundreds of people with event-related injuries, but also treats various medical conditions and provides free care to those who would not otherwise receive care.
Singingtree, who worked with and was inspired by the group White Bird Rock Medicine in Eugene, Oregon, established Aviva Rock Medicine in 1997 to cover the concerts White Bird could not.
“I saw Aviva Rock to be a great opportunity to provide healthcare outreach to a population not well served by anyone else,” said Singingtree, who hopes to offer more healthcare education and a free immunization clinic in the future.
“A large number of the population we serve do not believe in Western medicine and many of the children are not immunized,” said Singingtree, who has naturopathic physicians, medical doctors, nurse practitioners, EMTs, midwives and crisis/mental health workers on the volunteer staff. Many integrate holistic approaches and modern medicine in their repertoire since many of the patients seen by Aviva do not trust or are fearful of modern medicine.
Like most of the rock medicine groups, “rovers” walk among the crowd to look for people who may need their help. However, whether injuries are minor or major, concert-goers can also visit the “main hub,” as it’s called by Aviva volunteers, which is a large, freestanding tent with a medical unit, an area set-up for IVs and a CPR station. Separate from the main hub, another tent offers solace for those experiencing adverse party-going overindulgence.
While most of their work is a reaction to an illness or injury, Siri DePaolo, RNC, BSN, who has been with Aviva Rock Medicine since its formation, enjoys providing health maintenance, including teaching common-sense health practices.
“It’s hard to think of another job where you can be outdoors,” said DePaolo, who, when not volunteering, is an instructor at the Oregon School of Midwifery, a community mid-wife for home births and a resource nurse for a local hospital. “It’s just great fun to be out in the community and to provide medical care in a totally different setting instead of just working shifts somewhere. Plus, we have the best seats in the house.”
Singingtree added, “It is a time for socializing and fun, to be outdoors and to listen to great music. But most of all, my spiritual path believes in service to others.”
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