I don't know if you are a big fan of Levon Helm, the drummer, member of the legendary rock group, the Band, and sometime movie actor. Some people say he's one of the greatest musicians of all time, and Rolling Stone magazine rates him among the top 100 performers in rock and roll history.


To be honest, as much as I enjoyed the Band's music way back when and in the decades that have followed, I've never paid much attention to individual entertainers beyond what I hear in concert and on the radio or what I see on the screen. I was aware in an offhand way of Helm the drummer and singer, and I admired his performances in Coal Miner's Daughter and The Right Stuff, and, especially in his brief role as a blind man who pleads with Tommy Lee Jones to shoot him dead in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

It often happens that I learn more about a famous person after they're gone than I ever knew about them when they were still kicking around this earth. And so it is with Levon Helm, who's been the subject of countless fascinating tributes in the media since he died of cancer April 19 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

I've learned about his hardscrabble upbringing in Turkey Scratch, Ark.; his childhood exposure to the blues, country and gospel that would infuse his own music; and his decision to change his name from Lavon to Levon because people somehow found that easier to pronounce.

I learned about his breakthrough work with Bob Dylan, his disappointment with fan response that sent him back South and to a stint working on off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. I learned about the rise of the Band in the late 1960s, and the later, bitter conflicts with bandmate Robbie Robertson. I learned that he was diagnosed with throat cancer toward the end of the 1990s, had a tumor removed from his vocal cords and underwent 28 radiation treatments.

To pay for his mounting medical bills, Helm, with the help of other Woodstock residents, began hosting Saturday night concerts in the Barn, a recording space on his property. Eventually the concerts took on a life of their own, becoming known as the "Midnight Ramble" and drawing fans and admiring musicians like Elvis Costello, Emily Lou Harris, Norah Jones, Gillian Welch, Kris Kristofferson and many, many others.

Helm lived with cancer a decade longer than many predicted. He went on to perform around the country and recorded three more albums, each of which won a Grammy Award. His is a wonderful and inspiring story. It speaks to an indomitable spirit and to the power of a life filled with purpose and passion. And it speaks to the mind-blowing potential of American health care.

It also might leave you wondering about all those other Americans out there who are critically ill and struggling to make ends meet, who lack private health insurance even as funding for public programs shrinks and may shrink still more. Unlike Levon Helm, they don't have the talent, the talented friends and the fans to put on their own concerts to pay for medical care that has the potential to extend their lives. Unlike Helm and the rest of us lucky enough to have the cash or the coverage to adequately and regularly access America's health system, the only thing they can do is hope and pray and let their disease take its course, unimpeded by the greatest medical care the world has to offer.

I welcome your responses. Email me at bsantamour@healthforum.com.