Monday, August 15, 2011

It Isn't Fair

You wouldn’t know unless you know her and ask. Because she doesn’t show it on stage, where that smile seems to cover half her face and lights the stage when she listens to solos by Bob, or Paul, or when she tells a corny anecdote.

At Jardine's in 2010
You wouldn’t know that singer Megan Birdsall is in constant pain, and has been for two years, because her body is allergic to, and is rejecting, the prosthetic jaw which is needed to save her life.


I first heard her backed by a big band. I’d had a rough day and a friend offered to buy me a drink that night at The Blue Room. He’d heard this singer and big band separately and, he said, they should be terrific together.

I hadn’t been going out much for jazz then, so this was a good opportunity to hear someone new to me, and to end a bad day with a free drink.

The Blue Room was packed. The only open seat was on the upper level. My friend was on the floor, and I never did get that drink. When the singer started, I didn’t care. There stood a thin girl with brilliant red hair, launching into Miss Otis Regrets as I’d never heard it, at a blazingly fast tempo. I was amazed as was, judging from the applause, all of that packed house.

I had been detached from Kansas City’s jazz scene for too long. Here was a singer as good as anyone in jazz, and better than most.

That night inspired me to go out and discover all of the other tremendous young jazz musicians in Kansas City who I had been missing.


On May 15th, Megan emailed some friends:

“Hey, everyone.... I must apologize for being under the radar lately…. I’m doing ok, which is good. No major procedures as of yet, just lots and lots of tests with some good and not so good results. But I am keeping the positive intention that all will be well soon.

“This was an intense ordeal and I'm gonna take a few days to get my body back and process these new findings.... I will keep you informed as I make some decisions about what’s on the horizon for the next six months in relation to my treatment and Dallas….”

I caught up with her the next weekend, at The Drum Room. Between sets, we talked.

She had spent a week in Dallas undergoing tests, to determine why she was in constant pain and why tumors had developed under one cheek. She had told me about the tumors last fall.

Doctors determined she was allergic to five of the eight metals in her prosthetic jaw. Their solution was to put her on medications. But the medicines affected her mind, her reasoning, and she did not want to become dependent on them. Or they could replace the prosthetic jaw. But that operation would cost over $100,000, and any alternative jaw would be inferior to the one she already had. Besides, she had suffered through that operation once and nobody, ever, should endure it twice.

She needed time to consider her options.


The night at The Blue Room, I knew nothing about her. I only knew that I had heard a fantastic young jazz singer who I wanted to hear again. An internet search told me what most of KC’s jazz community already knew.

The cartilage at Megan’s jaw joint had disappeared. Her jaw joints were eroding and bone was grinding against bone. Worse, her shifting facial structure cut her windpipe’s opening from a normal 14 millimeters to 4 millimeters. Left untreated, her windpipe could eventually close and suffocate her.

The solution was reconstruction of her face with titanium jaw pieces. Nobody could tell her if she would be able to sing again.

She underwent eight hours of surgery in Dallas.

After months of recovery, Megan returned to the stage.

I don’t know of anyone else who could go through all that and return beaming so vivaciously, with that smile lighting the stage. You can’t fake it. The audience knows if you’re projecting who you really are.

Musicians say her singing was even better. Audiences embraced her.


On June 11, Megan emailed some friends:

“…My body is rejecting the implant and it’s making me hurt real bad and compromising my immune system. I have one option for treatment that isn’t replacing the whole prosthetic. That option is injecting the metals [to which she’s allergic] at a concentrated quantity directly into my stomach to hopefully change my body’s fight mechanism from reject to accept. That’s really all I fully understand about doing this. I have a 50/50 shot of it working.

“I have shot titanium alloy and titanium so far. It's weird. It seems to...cause my normal symptoms to get aggravated. But the weirdest part is how it is working on my brain, central nervous system and breathing. I'm very delirious almost directly upon injection. I called the doctor’s office and they say to write down everything, to watch the breathing and to try and get through two rounds of shots.

“It's a four day injection cycle that I will now be doing continuously for three to six months. I am on day two. The first day titanium alloy, second day titanium, third day nickel, fourth day aluminum and polyethylene. If they have to adjust the dose I have to go back to Dallas for testing and it’s very expensive, so I'm praying on it getting easier each week.... But this is my only treatment plan so it has to work, so I can get these tumors out, that have been caused by the prosthetic, this fall and finally be better by spring….”


There’s the uptempo take on Lover Man. Maybe somebody else sings it like that, but if so, I haven’t heard it. Megan’s way washes through the ennui and hurt and turns it into a song of vigorous rejection. It’s wonderful.

Or her version of Wichita Lineman. Here’s where all the hurt has gone. She’s telling a story of loneliness with an anguish that nobody else pulls from the lyrics.

But my favorite is her interpretation of Fire and Rain, as a jazz ballad. To hear her take a song so personal to its creator and wrap herself around it, with vocal perfection, will melt you in your seat.

On stage, you can’t fake it. The audience knows. Her amazing vocal talent, her enthusiasm and sincerity, they’re real.


On June 22, Megan emailed some friends:

“So today the docs have suspended the shots I was doing because they were afraid the doses were hurting me and doing damage to my body instead of supporting my system. They are pretty sure the 16 days didn't do any permanent damage but I seem to be at the mercy of the ‘practice’ of medicine right now. They say it may take a week or so for my brain to come back from the injections.

“I’m supposed to go back to the pain killer, anti-inflammatory regimen until I can go back to Dallas to the docs for more intense testing.... They are still hoping to help me, although this is looking like it's gonna be a longer road than I thought.”


She returns to Dallas in the fall. She needs to raise money to pay for it first.

It’s not fair.

I’ve never heard Megan say that. Nothing in her presence suggests she even thinks it. She’s so positive, and that must be what’s carried her this far. She says even the doctors are amazed at her upbeat attitude.

She credits the music in her life.

I’ll credit the jazz.


All emails are quoted with Megan’s permission.

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