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More Lessons from the Piano in the Key of Life

It really does not take much to make a difference in someone’s day, in someone’s life. Let me explain.

About twenty years ago an accomplished pianist in our community was downsizing and asked us if we wanted an upright piano. What is an upright piano? I asked. Obviously I had no previous musical experience. We said yes.

On a blistering hot June day, a moving van appeared in our driveway with the piano. But now for the rest of the story.

Being a reasonably insightful person, I bought a piano lesson book and after several weeks I was totally frustrated and affirmed to keep my medical license up-to-date because my skills at the piano would never challenge the Billy Joels of the world. I was not yet ready for prime time.

Finally I swallowed my pride and connected with a piano teacher, and we have been together every week for almost twenty years. With repetition, and a little luck and concentration, I have become reasonably comfortable with certain simple musical notation books and songs in the key of C and five basic chords.

If individuals can recognize the songs I am banging out on the keyboard, I view that as a success. I appeared at Carnegie Hall once. But not for my piano prowess. It was for my graduation from medical school. A repeat performance on that stage is not on my horizon.

World-class Pianos, So-so Pianist

Our medical center is fortunate to have several world-class pianos on the property, and I have the opportunity to occasionally play these magnificent instruments. They are among the finest pianos in the world, but there is no excuse for talent, and my skills remain rudimentary.

But every once in a while something magical happens when I sit down to play. This is one more story of my lessons learned in the key of life.

One of the superb pianos is in the lobby of the radiation oncology department. These patients almost by definition have serious cancer issues and there are some predictable and expected side effects from some of these treatments including loss of appetite, fatigue, and hair loss as well as nausea and vomiting. Usually, the symptoms can be modified, but nevertheless patients generally feel unwell during these therapies, which can take many weeks.

As I was focused on some traditional Broadway and country tunes on a gray cold afternoon, a young woman in a wheelchair was escorted into the waiting area. She did not look well. Gaunt, obviously had lost weight, wore a battered ski hat promoting a local beer, and I suspect from her body posture that things were not going especially well. She was alone.

We briefly made eye contact, a polite nod of the head. It is really easy for an amateur like me to lose their place on the keyboard so I try to concentrate. But it was difficult to focus as I was finishing up some music favorites. I glanced over toward her and saw that she was crying. Obviously some of these songs touched her soul when perhaps she was in a better space.

I closed the lid on the piano, gathered my sheet music, and as I walked toward her, I extended a very polite fist bump. I wished her well and a safe trip home.

Her words as we parted, “Thank you. I really needed that. This was a very sad day for me. But you made it better.”

So here we are, two strangers, who will most likely never meet again but who somehow connected over a piano in the lobby of a hospital.

Bottom line: We humans were not designed to go it alone, we need each other. As the commercial once said, “Reach out and touch someone.”

Dr. Ed playing the piano. Personal photo.

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