"All of a sudden, I just passed out," Sauls recalls, "and woke up a month-and-a-half later in the hospital."
The news was bad. Sauls, 55, was diagnosed with hepatitis C, a destructive liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus. HCV is spread by contact with blood from an infected person. You can contract the virus by using drugs with contaminated needles, receiving blood from an infected donor, having sex with an infected partner, or living with an infected person and sharing items like razors or toothbrushes. A married father of two, Sauls doesn't know how he got the virus, which has left him in need of a liver transplant. Sauls, who spent six weeks on a respirator, also has chronic lung disease.
Financially, the news was equally devastating. According to Sauls, his hospital stay cost more than a quarter-million dollars. He did have insurance, but his policy coverage -- which paid roughly 80 percent of expenses -- was limited to $100,000. He owes the balance.
Steve Worley, owner of a concrete construction business in Lawrenceville, is a longtime Sauls fan, dating back to his work with Eric Quincy Tate in the '70s. "Bear is probably one of the great undiscovered guitar players I've seen in my life," Worley says. "He's one of my top five guitar heroes, right up there with Eric Clapton, Billy Gibbons, Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman."
In response to Sauls' plight, Worley launched a series of monthly benefit concerts at Fuzzy's, Chip's Bar and Grill in Winder, Marietta's Blue Raccoon, Castaways and File Gumbo in Kennesaw. In hosting these benefits, Worley learned that musicians have a profound need for access to affordable health insurance. He formed the Bear Hug Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to aid musicians with health-related expenses. Through corporate sponsorship, Worley hopes the organization -- whose board includes local musicians Tim Gunther and Andrew Black, and businessman Mark Fogle -- will eventually enable musicians nationwide to obtain health insurance coverage.
This weekend, the Bear Hug Foundation takes its first step toward that goal, hosting an all-day benefit on the lawn at Chip's, headlined by Dickey Betts and Great Southern, and Lee Roy Parnell. The show will give the Bear Hug Foundation "some credibility as a nonprofit," Worley says. After that, he'll begin developing proposals to solicit contributions from Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Georgia Southern and other major corporations.
"All of these corporations donate to nonprofit foundations," Worley says. "And since musicians touch everyone's lives in one way or another every day, we think that these people will come off the hip and get involved in our foundation. Once we can spread this corporate sponsorship nationwide, we should be able to underwrite our own health insurance policy for working musicians all over the country."
Sauls, for one, supports the idea -- not just for his own benefit, but also for working musicians everywhere.
"I'm just one pea in the pod," he says. "There are music people all over the U.S. going through this. It's a hard [living], because you have to spend about everything you make just to survive. This foundation would help ease the burden on musicians who get in bad shape -- especially from things that just fall on them suddenly, out of nowhere."
Send donations to the Bear Hug Foundation, P.O. Box 615, Grayson, GA 30017.
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