Wake-Up Call 

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Bassist Casey Martin now has another reason to remember the date 9/11.

Last month, his punk-rock band, Sixer, was a third of the way through a nationwide tour, about to play a legendary dive called Linda's Doll Hut in Anaheim, Calif. It was a prime opportunity: The dingy former truck stop is best known as a launching pad of sorts for big name MTV bands like Blink 182 and The Offspring.

But the night took a turn no one could have expected.

The night's opening act, Casket Life, had just finished playing, and Martin, 28, was drinking a few beers before taking the stage. His band soon tore through a furious opening of back-to-back numbers. Then something went wrong.

"I can't really explain it, but I felt like I was really wasted," he says, recalling that night recently at a coffee shop in the Fan. "I was confused and I thought my bass was cutting out, but really my right arm wasn't working. I was swinging but not hitting the strings."

The band immediately realized something was awry. Martin was having difficulty speaking -- he could only utter short curse words. A few members of Casket Life walked him outside as the rest of Sixer continued playing, thinking that Martin must have had too much to drink or maybe even been drugged.

After a shortened set, Martin's fellow band members decided to take him to a hospital. Martin protested, because he'd just started his own tiling company in Richmond and had no health insurance. (His former job was as a sound man and tour manager for successful touring acts Cracker and the related group Camper Van Beethoven.) But the musicians took him to the hospital against his wishes.

There, doctors performed blood work and a urinalysis that confirmed Martin had no drugs in his system. Next was an expensive battery of tests — CT scans, echocardiograms and MRIs. After two nights in the hospital, the news was confirmed. Martin had suffered a minor stroke, a rarity for someone his age. (Strokes occuring in people younger than 30 are extremely rare.)

Doctors could not surmise what had caused the stroke. So they put Martin on an aspirin regimen, told him to return home immediately for more testing and forbade him to drive. Martin could hardly do anything with his right arm; he was told a part of his brain had died and he would have to relearn simple tasks. Since then, his speech has slowly returned to normal, and feeling has come back in most of his arm, although it still has a number of dead spots.

Once Martin got home to his worried wife, he received the bill from the hospital: $22,200 — not the highest medical bill by any means, but a mountain of debt. Worse still, he could not afford further testing, and doctors at the Fan Free Clinic couldn't tell him much more about his condition. His only clear option was to change his lifestyle: quit smoking, quit drinking caffeine and alcohol, and continue his baby aspirin regimen. Talking to family, he learned that a grandfather had suffered two similar strokes.

Martin and his wife own a house in the Fan and make too much to be eligible for Medicaid, so now they must figure out how to finance his outstanding medical bill through other means. "But my main concern is, I still don't know why it happened, and I don't want to encourage it again," he says, sipping a decaf coffee.

Although Martin has been taking it easy for the last month, he attempted to play with Sixer during two local benefit shows at the end of September, which raised $1,000 for his cause. To play his bass, Martin had to duct-tape the pick to his hand because his fingertips are still numb.

Martin says he's been "overwhelmed" at the level of support from his friends, fans and fellow musicians across the country. Best buddy Matt Lohmann, a graphic designer in Boston, started an online campaign to raise money and has so far received donations of more than $4,000. David Lowery from Cracker says the band is planning to sell "irreverent" T-shirts through its Web site and possibly play a benefit concert down the road.

"A lot of people remember him from being our tour manager," Lowery says during a tour stop in Seattle. "But while benefits are good for raising awareness, they actually don't really make much money, since they cost so much to put on."

Martin is applying for the Virginia Coordinated Care for the Uninsured program at VCU Health System to see if he can get further preventive care and testing. Launched in 2000, the program uses a managed-care model for eligible low-income patients who are uninsured. Patients pick a community doctor participating in the program and then pay a percentage of the costs. Enrollment fluctuates between 15,000 and 19,000 patients a year.

"I can't really put into words how I feel," Martin says. "I have a lot of pride, so it's hard to take donations. But once I saw that bill … I don't understand why they charge me so much more than they would an insurance company. They charged me $160 for a Tylenol, an aspirin and a potassium supplement."

Martin's also looking for a new job that will pay the health insurance he couldn't afford on his own. To his credit, he still has a positive outlook on the situation. "Money has never been that important to me," he says. "But I would go crazy if I couldn't play my music. That's how I deal with life." S

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