BY Ian McNulty, Staff Writer
The potentially deadly virus hepatitis C is sometimes
described as a silent killer because its symptoms
can take years to manifest themselves. In New Orleans, this silent
killer has met its antithesis, someone who is making a lot of
noise in her struggle to combat the blood-borne disease.
Two years ago, Timothea Beckerman was diagnosed
with hepatitis C. Almost immediately, the professional rhythm
and blues singer involved herself in the nascent effort to educate
the public about infection risks and available treatments. Within
six months, she formed her own nonprofit organization in New Orleans
dedicated to the cause. She has big plans to expand its referral,
education and support services.
As soon as I was diagnosed, I knew what I
was going to be doing, says Timothea, who uses only her
first name as her public and performance persona.
I know music is a universal language. Even
if someone doesnt want to hear what you have to say, theyll
listen to the song, and then theyll listen to you. Especially
kids. You cant put a doctor in front of a bunch of kids
saying You shouldnt do this, you shouldnt do
that. But you put someone like me up there in front of those
kids singing Wang Dang Doodle and then say Now,
let me tell you about myself. It works every time. I get
Timotheas story involves days of injected
drug abuse that she says could have been the source of her infection
more than 20 years ago.
Those days are behind her but the virus remained,
undetected until it showed up in blood tests in 2000. Timothea
had a regular singing gig in Florida at the time. When she learned
about her infection she sought out a Florida-based nonprofit called
Hep-C Alert, an advocacy group founded by a woman named Andi Thomas
after learning she had the virus in 1996. Here, Timothea learned
about the virus and treatment options. Thomas also showed her
how to organize and run a public health advocacy group and prepared
her to carry the groups message to Louisiana.
Returning home, Timothea converted half of her Annunciation
Street home into offices for a new organization, named Siren
to Wail after her aspirations to alert the community about
the virus. Now she maintains a hotline staffed by herself and
volunteer social workers. They refer callers to doctors, send
them information, arrange discounted testing and counsel them
on avoiding exposure and weighing treatment options.
Timotheas connections in the local music community
have been a vital tool for the new organization. Concerts are
the groups principal fund-raiser. She uses the allure of
the music scene to interest doctors who now sit on her board and
volunteer their time, including Robert Perrillo who heads the
gastroenterology and hepatology section at Ochsner Clinic Foundation.
Perrillo and a host of prominent local musicians appear in a public
service announcement produced by Siren to Wail,
which airs on local television stations.
Earlier this year, Siren to Wail formed
support groups for people suffering from hepatitis C in New Orleans
and Covington. Timothea plans to start an education tour of local
public schools when classes resume this fall.
The groups next goal is to raise money, find
grants and secure a location to start a clinic devoted to hepatitis
C testing, treatment and patient support. Siren to Wail has been
run on a shoestring, steadily growing from a total budget of $28,000
the first year to $50,000 raised so far this year from individual
and corporate donations.
07/15/2002 - Vol. 102 - Issue 107 - Page 15