It's hard to decide what's more remarkable: what almost killed Larry Elbaum, what Elbaum is still recovering from, or what he plans to do now.
The façade of his S. 15th Street office is unremarkable -- in fact, it's unmarked. From here, Elbaum has worked as a private therapist for about half of his 30-year career. Today he specializes in drug and alcohol counseling. Years ago, he could have used it himself.
"Heroin was my drug of choice," says Elbaum, now 58. "I am recovering," he adds quickly, in the manner of people who feel the task is never done.
In fact, his past prevents him today from taking painkillers to help him deal with the after-effects of necrotizing fasciitis -- the flesh-eating bacteria that suddenly attacked him in May 2004. It went from a pain in the ass -- literally -- while sitting in the grass at a North Side festival to emergency surgery within days at St. Clair Hospital.
Eventually, he says, "I was sent home to die." It took him two years to begin functioning again. "They took about three quarters of me off, on my left side, from the small of my back to my knees. I was in constant physical pain but I wasn't going to take narcotics, for obvious reasons. It [still] always hurts ..."
Complicating matters was the fact that, when the illness hit, he had lost his health insurance during a downturn in his business. "So we were introduced to the world of public insurance" -- the federal Medical Assistance program.
Placing his shingle up again in the South Side afterward, he had to gather new patients. But he also had a new mission: providing free counseling and South Side agency referrals to those with mental health problems, especially drug and alcohol therapy. He calls his nonprofit program "Hope Without Insurance."
Clients, he says, "will get the same treatment they'd get in my private practice, except it won't cost them $150 and they may be referred to a more appropriate agency. It's kind of based on the old '60s free clinic. And I'm a pissed-off liberal."
He points to the 900,000 people in Pennsylvania alone without health insurance, as reported last year by the state's Department of Insurance. In November, he started placing flyers in the Beehive and other Carson Street institutions. The flyers sought financial help for his fledgling effort, but about 40 potential patients contacted him too. He's still looking for a board of directors and donations for his new nonprofit. Eventually he hopes to hire a social worker and see 80 to 90 clients a week.
Still, Elbaum didn't just notice the uninsured when he suddenly joined their ranks, says a former patient who is now a friend.
"I could never tell whether [his generosity] was because he wanted to see the general population of the South Side improve or he was just a shitty businessman," jokes Mandy Kivowitz-Delfaver -- the singer known as Phat Man Dee. She was a patient of Elbaum's "for years and years," she reports -- although not for drug and alcohol counseling. Elbaum charged her as little as $10 a session. "Even before I could pay, I would trade cleaning" services for sessions, she says.
She remembers Elbaum's arrival on the South Side scene in the early 1990s, when Carson Street "was bombed out from Station Square to Homestead. There were so many pathetic cases hanging around at the Beehive needing help. He was always such a generous guy, sitting down, [saying] 'Hello -- how can I help?' He kind of looks like my old Jewish father ... but you spend five minutes with him and age kind of disappears."
Having had a physical problem misdiagnosed as schizophrenia years ago -- when Elbaum wasn't available -- Man Dee concludes one thing about the psychiatric establishment: "Those people are insane. Larry's the only [therapist] that I've ever liked because he's the only one who understands a creative soul. I used to joke and say South Side's renaissance is due to the free doctoring of Larry Elbaum. But I wonder how much of a joke that is?"
Elbaum is certainly serious about his latest turn. "If this really flies -- right now it's just walking ... it's something I can leave on this world, in this city, when I'm not here," he says. "I was close enough to death -- I want to leave something good."
Hope Without Insurance: 412-488-1942.(
Larry Elbaum's South Side program will be available to clients for a nominal fee based on their ability to pay.)