One November morning, Maine songwriter Dustin Saucier sat on his bed in his Bangor home, hit record and performed an acoustic cover of a song by Sunny Day Real Estate, a little-known ‘90s rock band from Seattle with a cult following.
He posted the video to Facebook.
“Loved it! Great cover for a gray day like today,” one friend commented.
“This is sick and you are dope,” said another.
Sharing music has been a typical coping mechanism for those yearning to stay in touch during the pandemic. For Saucier, a 34-year-old from the small Aroostook County town of Fort Fairfield, sharing music has helped him find his closest friends. But it has a higher purpose now.
As the world broke down this spring, Saucier’s health went with it.
In May, a doctor told him that his kidneys were headed toward failure, echoing his family’s history of renal disease. He was laid off from work in July and moved in with his mother in Bangor in August.
In September, he started a regimen of dialysis.
Two weeks later, he got his first bill — $33,556 for five days of treatments. He later realized that it would be covered by MaineCare, but the weight of the situation hit Saucier like a ton of bricks.
Saucier needs a kidney. He’s living with an advanced chronic kidney disease, and needs dialysis three days a week, an exhausting treatment that can take him a day to recover from. But the dialysis treatments are just a Band-Aid. The way he puts it, a transplant will be necessary to live a normal life again.
Like so much, the coronavirus has complicated that effort. The pandemic has negatively impacted organ donation and transplantation in countries with high rates of COVID-19 infection, including the U.S.
Saucier has been an active musician in Portland since he moved there 15 years ago. He’s fronted indie-rock bands Cape Cannons, Arms Against the Sea and many others, and headed the “Emo Night” of live cover songs at local stages.
Anchored by this extensive resume as a live performer and bandleader, it felt natural this summer to livestream concerts online and post videos of himself playing covers — artists like Weezer, Mazzy Star, Jimmy Eat World. They were a way to maintain his mental health during a medical scare and a grueling lockdown. But he soon realized that sharing music had higher importance than simply staying in touch. As he and his doctors search for a donor, anything that helps him stay in the public eye could be lifesaving work.
“I decided that it would also be a great platform for me to spread the word about my need,” Saucier said, adding that posting himself playing music returned him to what made him happy in a time of hard distractions, including his father’s death in September as he started treatments.
His O-positive blood type typically requires a donor with the same blood type, according to the National Kidney Foundation, but Saucier has advocated for people of all blood types to make donations, which can help with his transplant.
Saucier has also battled type 1 diabetes since he was diagnosed at the age of 11, a span of time over which the cost of insulin has nearly tripled. The cost of insulin and other prescription drugs were a major plank during the Democratic primary season when several candidates used them as a plank to support Medicare For All, but analysts say other health care issues are likelier to dominate President-Elect Joe Biden’s first term.
For Saucier, it’s been nearly impossible to keep up.
“There were a couple of instances where I would not have prescription coverage and would either have to ration my insulin or pay upward of $300 for a 30-day supply of just one type. Most diabetics take two,” Saucier said.
“Oftentimes I would have to choose between a doctor’s visit or paying for groceries and utilities,” he said.
Exhausted from dialysis, he’s unable to work and is still in debt.
Despite a pandemic that has devastated the live music industry, music remains a respite for Saucier. And he has hope.
Seen as a leader in the Portland music scene for more than a decade, the artist has found support in a number of friends.
John Nels Blanchette, a fellow Portland musician who grew up a couple towns away in Aroostook County, livestreamed a fundraiser concert of his own last week, soliciting donations to help with Saucier’s medical bills and other life expenses while he’s laid up.
Saucier deserves it, he reckons. Blanchette considers him one of the most underappreciated musicians in the state, with a personality to match. He recalls a time years ago when he needed to get home to Fort Kent for an emergency and didn’t have a car.
Saucier drove him there and back — a 12-hour trip.
“He’s one of those human beings who honestly believes in paying it forward,” Blanchette said. “I love the guy.”