For years, the job of a harp technician has been a coveted position, reserved for an elite, slightly buttoned-up few. Servicing such an instrument that’s so full-bodied requires a deft touch, sharp ear and an affection for the dramatic.
George Flores, 39, is a former heavy metal band singer-guitarist who used to have long hair and an eyebrow piercing. That he became a harp technician — one of about a dozen in the country — in 1998 after years as a hard rocker makes him unique. Even more, this lifelong Chicagoan suffered a 2004 crash that left him a paraplegic, and he continues his labor of love, servicing the 100-pound, 6-foot-tall instruments.
How he’s able to do this is a story about an odyssey through a health-care system — in some of Chicago’s most prestigious hospitals — that he said he almost didn’t survive.
“Once you’re in the system, you can generate more revenue,” said Flores, who has had four surgeries and countless procedures over the last five years. “We’re focusing too much on institutionalizing people and not focusing enough on rehabilitation and investing in things like stem-cell research.”
Part of the problem, he says, is the country’s fee-for-service health-care system in which doctors get paid more as they order more tests and procedures. He believes that in too many cases, doctors benefit more if patients remain ill rather than are cured.
But let’s start at the beginning: On the morning of Sept. 12, 2004, two men stopped their pickup truck along an on-ramp of Interstate Highway 55 near west suburban La Grange to salvage scrap metal from a mangled motorcycle, parts of which lay sprawled across the side of the road.
One of the men wondered why police hadn’t picked up the bike, which appeared to have been in a crash. So he suggested that he and his partner search the nearby waist-high grass in case the motorcycle’s rider was still there. Soon they discovered Flores’ mangled body, which had been there overnight.
“It was a miracle that they found me,” said Flores, who admits to having one drink the night before the crash but insists neither alcohol nor drugs played a role in the accident. “I’m not a religious guy, but how else do you explain how you find somebody laying in a ravine like a little dot on the landscape?”
Flores had suffered a complete spinal-cord injury and had a punctured lung, six broken ribs, numerous internal injuries and a laceration across the lower portion of his face.
“The pain was intense, but once you’re told you won’t ever walk again, you’re grateful you can feel something beyond the paralysis,” said Flores, who would later fight an addiction to pain killers.
He would lose all of his possessions, land on Medicaid and spend 2 1/2 years bed-ridden, whittling a 185-pound frame down to 117 pounds. He also would have to deal with bedsores and numerous infections, which he believes were handled improperly; incontinence; and two botched bladder reconstruction surgeries.
He said he understands that he had extensive injuries and there were doctors whose treatments helped save his life. But he also believes that in a discussion about health-care reform, it’s impossible not to explore whether doctors act more on the behalf of their patients, the potential for lawsuits or their own pocketbooks.
Beyond that, he also wonders about the disparity in care depending on the patient’s race and class and whether he or she has health insurance.
“Having gone through this, I’ve seen a diverse group of [paraplegics] and I look at their care and I’ve wondered: If I had been a wealthy, white man who wasn’t named Flores, would I have received steroids to slow my spinal injury when I was first admitted?”
These days Flores’ good looks and confidence don’t convey all he has been through. Last year, he returned to his job as a harp technician. He works for Chicago’s Venus Harps and uses a stand-up wheelchair that locks his knees into position, allowing him to do his job.
He’s also building a harp for the National Spinal Cord Injury Association that will be auctioned off for charity later this month.
“Everybody wants to believe that doctors and the health-care industry are surrogate parents,” he told me last week in the harp shop. “If you get hurt, you can go to them and trust that they will heal you. But the system, as it is now, requires you to have the will and the sheer determination to live, sometimes in spite of it all.”
By Dawn Turner Trice