Shall We, Pants? 

Street Talk

Shall We, Pants?Faith Healers Will Lay Hands on RichmondTrani's Office Gets Wheelchair-Friendly UpgradeTV Production Clones Jefferson's HomeGWAR Slave Pit Is on the BlockShall We, Pants?

Want to get some attention for your cause? Nothing does it like really big pants.

Richmond surgeon Dr. Neil Hutcher wants a state Senate health commission to endorse proposed legislation requiring insurance companies to pay for life-saving weight-reduction surgery for morbidly obese patients.

So Hutcher is making his point in a big way — with Pants Across America, a quilt of enormously large pants collected from formerly obese people around the nation whose lives have been saved by gastric bypass surgeries such as Hutcher performs.

Started in June in San Diego at a convention of the International Obesity Surgery Support Group, the pants quilt already has collected more than 100 pairs, all inscribed with the patient's name, date of surgery and how much weight they've lost.

Hutcher will add several pairs of pants from his own patients to the quilt before he brings it to the Senate office building for display on July 28. He hopes the campaign will help his cause and bring the kind of attention to obesity that has been focused on other illnesses such as AIDS and cancer, he says.

"Obesity has either equaled or surpassed tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death in the United States," according to recent research, Hutcher says.

"I had two people die last year waiting for a decision from their insurance company," Hutcher says. "It's amazing the callousness of these people. ... I had an insurance director ... tell me about a patient, 'If he dies, he dies. It's his bad luck for having our insurance.'"

The surgeon, who practices at Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital, says he expects stiff opposition from insurance-industry lobbyists, even though he says research shows the surgery pays for itself by eliminating other costly health-care claims of the myriad illnesses associated with morbid obesity such as heart disease, sleep apnea and diabetes.

"If it has anything to do with medical, moral and economic right, it will be passed," he says of the Senate bill introduced by state Sen. Benjamin Lambert in the 1999 General Assembly. "It will be a test of right against ... the might of the insurance industry's money."

— Richard Foster

Faith Healers Will Lay Hands on Richmond

Back in 1982, Robin Harfouche was like a lot of wannabe starlets hoofing it in Hollywood. She did TV commercials, waitressed between auditions and listened to her spirit guide, the ghost of Marilyn Monroe.

OK, so maybe she wasn't like all the rest.

Then known as Robin Harry, she was a dancer on a country-music spinoff of "Solid Gold" and had won a Clio Award for her choreography work in commercials. Then, while waitressing in a restaurant owned by Sonny Bono, a freak accident happened: A heavy storage door fell off its hinges and hit her in the head, sending her into a coma.

She spent six months in a wheelchair, her legs paralyzed, and doctors told her she would never be able to walk again, Harfouche says. At 28, with her career evaporated, she was on the brink of suicide when a friend from the rock band The Knack suggested she go to his church.

Touched by a faith healer, she was healed, she says. Now she and her husband, the Rev. Christian Harfouche, a reformed-drug-addict-turned-man-of-God, travel the world with their own charismatic faith-healing ministry.

They'll be preaching in Richmond Aug. 17-21 and Aug. 24-28 at Abundant Life Church of Christ at 3300 Neale St. Fantastically, they claim to have healed everything from blindness to AIDS.

One especially dramatic example: The spirit of God told Harfouche to punch a woman's stomach tumor, she says. "That sounds kind of radical ... but I didn't really punch her. I just slapped her a little hard in the area where the tumor was," Harfouche explains. The tumor "instantly dissolved and her skirt fell off because she lost so much weight." Luckily, it happened at a women's conference, she adds.

Harfouche says she knows plenty of people will be skeptical of her claims, but that's OK. She wants nonbelievers to come and see what happens.

"I think when you have a miracle happen to you and it changes your life, it's kind of easy to believe that [God] could do it for other people," she says, "and then also the Bible talks about when Jesus was here, his ministry was to heal people, and so we believe he'll do it today just like he did when he was here."

— R.F.

Trani's Office Gets Wheelchair-Friendly Upgrade

Virginia Commonwealth University President Eugene P. Trani will be the first to tell you that VCU is a modern, cutting-edge kind of place, so it probably comes as a surprise to many folks to learn that his office is only now in the process of becoming compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Construction workers are building a wheelchair ramp in back of the building, and other features are being added to the President's House at 910 W. Franklin St., such as a toilet with wheelchair access, says Brian J. Ohlinger, VCU's assistant vice president of facilities management.

So, why is Trani's office getting upgraded nine years after ADA passed Congress? Simply put, there were other higher priorities, Ohlinger says.

Because of limited funds, there were other buildings with much higher volumes of traffic that needed to be renovated first. So, in the past, Ohlinger says, Trani made himself available to meet disabled visitors in more accessible meeting spaces than the president's office.

Federal law requires that all new construction must be ADA compliant, but not all older buildings are required to be fitted, so long as the university makes sure disabled people have access to all of its services.

Since 1990, Ohlinger says, VCU has spent $1.9 million retrofitting older buildings to make them ADA compliant. About 85 percent of VCU's 161 buildings are now compliant, he estimates.

Since the new fine arts building has been built on Broad Street, the sculpture foundry located behind Trani's office is being moved, leaving room for the wheelchair ramp and new parking spaces. The building should be ADA compliant by the beginning of the fall 1999 semester, Ohlinger says.

— R.F.

TV Production Clones Jefferson's Home

When the producers of an upcoming TV movie about Thomas Jefferson decided to film at Tuckahoe Plantation, they set about creating a perfect reproduction of Jefferson's home — a clone, if you will.

It is identical to Monticello in every way ... except it is three-fourths its size.

You can almost hear Dr. Evil hissing: "Breathtaking. I shall call it Mini Monticello."

And, in fact, that's what the folks at Tuckahoe, Jefferson's boyhood home in Goochland County, have dubbed it.

"It's really cool," says Sosie Hublitz, Tuckahoe's catering and special events director. "It is pretty big. They're making it from scratch from wood. ... It's quite extraordinary."

The film, aptly titled "Monticello," will begin shooting in about a month. The construction of Mini Monticello in a hay field adjacent to the plantation house was "an unusual request," Hublitz allows, "but because of the symbiotic relationship between Tuckahoe and Monticello, it seemed like an interesting project."

Jefferson spent much of his childhood on the now 300-year-old Tuckahoe plantation and his schoolhouse is still on the plantation grounds.

No word on how faithful to history this production will be or who will star, but Jefferson's beleaguered blue-blood descendants can at least take comfort in knowing they won't have to worry about DNA results with Mini Monticello.

— R.F.

GWAR Slave Pit Is on the Block

For sale: Industrial warehouse space, 9,636 square feet. Asking price $260,000. Severed heads and limbs optional.

The Slave Pit, the headquarters and art studio of Richmond's own Grammy-nominated shock rockers GWAR, is for sale.

Owned by a group of local investors, the property has been on the market for about a year, but real-estate agents have made it more public with some new signs advertising the warehouse at 2010 Chamberlayne Ave.

"They'd like to sell the building, but they really haven't had a whole hell of a lot of luck there. People come over and look at it and they're like, 'Oh My God!' So we wish them all the luck," says GWAR's colorful frontman, Dave Brockie, in a telephone interview from the Midwest leg of the band's GWARmageddon tour.

Actually, it hasn't been that bad, says David Franke, a commercial real estate agent with Advantis, the firm marketing the warehouse.

Franke recalls taking some prospective buyers into the Slave Pit one day, past freshly bloodied fake limbs hanging to dry and the severed head of Monica Lewinsky propped on a table. "The people I was showing the building to didn't raise any eyebrows at all," Franke says. "They were looking at the building structure."

So, given that GWAR has been essentially banned from playing its hometown since Brockie got in hot water five years ago for golfing naked on stage at the Flood Zone, will GWAR leave Richmond if it loses its home?

Nope, says Brockie. The band just signed a new one-year lease for the Slave Pit, and even if a new owner chose not to honor the lease, they say Franke has promised to help them find other space locally. "We'd love to stay there," he says, "and there's certainly no plans for us to be leaving town or anything radical."

Nothing radical from the self-styled sleaziest band in the universe? Maybe they have been in Richmond too long ...

— R.F.

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