One evening well after 5 p.m., Harley Bowman was sitting alone in the Wilmot Cancer Center lobby. He had his cancer surgically removed a couple weeks earlier and just finished his first meeting with his radiation oncologist. He was waiting for his wife to pick him up. Coincidentally, she was at a different cancer center for an appointment after her cancer surgery, and was running late.
“It was an emotionally charged day,” Harley recalled. “All of a sudden I hear this piano start playing and I thought it was a player piano, but I looked up and it was a person who looked like a doctor. I stood up and watched him play. I walked closer and his music just took my mind off of everything. It was such a blessing to me that evening.”
When he was done playing, Harley was startled by a man he didn’t realize was standing next to him. “Boy, I really needed that,” the man said with tears in his eyes. Harley had been moved to tears, too.
The man in scrubs at the piano was Dr. Luis Mendez, a dentist who needed to sell his piano before moving to Rochester, NY from Mexico to begin his advanced training at Eastman Institute for Oral Health, part of the University of Rochester Medical Center.
Luis had heard that the medical center’s interfaith chapel had an upright piano, and he would frequently go there on breaks to play, if no one was in there. But then he heard about the grand piano in the lobby of Wilmot Cancer Center.
Luis fell in love with piano at age 12 and once dreamed of becoming a pianist. He plays because music gives him peace. “It takes me out of the stress,” he explained. He plays for no one, and yet, unbeknownst to him, his music is a gift to many, like Harley, who are living with gut-wrenching pain, fear, and anxiety since cancer invaded their lives.
Patients approach Luis and he’ll stop playing. They want to talk and Luis is happy to oblige. “I often get goose bumps when they share their stories, and sometimes I even cry later in the bathroom,” he admitted. Some patients applaud, which makes Luis uncomfortable. Most thank Luis, telling him how refreshing and meaningful his music is to them. “I just received the news that I’m cancer-free and this is my first gift,” a few have told him.
In the visits to the Wilmot Cancer Center that followed, Harley and Luis became friends. Harley learned that he plays at the Cancer Center because he doesn’t have a piano at home. With his young family and tuition payments, there’s no way he could afford to buy one. As it turns out, Harley and his wife Joan have a friend, Lucille Muench, who was moving to Virginia and needed to find a home for her piano, a Winkelmann Braunschweig 1837, a family treasure for more than three generations.
But she wasn’t about to give it to just anyone. So she invited Luis to her home, where Harley, Joan and a handful of Lucille’s friends were there to meet Luis. He shared stories of his family in Mexico, how he first fell in love with piano, his decision to become a dentist and shared photos of his children. They knew he played at the cancer center and that he also plays piano at his church. Then Lucille asked Luis to play something. He said he would play Via Dolarosa, an arrangement by Kartsonakis. “Dino Kartsonakis?” one of her friends asked. Turned out, the friend went to school with the famous Christian piano star.
Blown away by the notion that someone would be willing to give this beautiful piano for free, Luis was nervous and started shaking. But he pushed his nerves aside and began to play. “One of the ladies started crying,” Luis recalled. “The piece is intense. It’s about the power of the crucifixion. It takes you
someplace and then gently brings you back.”
“It was thrilling the way that he played the piano,” recalled Lucille, 94. “I was so sorry I didn’t record it. He’s quite accomplished and I didn’t want him to stop playing.” She gifted him the piano, the group of friends prayed for Luis and his family, and Harley hired movers to transport it to Luis’s home.
Even though he frequently plays the beautiful piano at home now, Luis still plays at the Cancer Center, sometimes before his shift at the dental clinic or during lunch breaks. “One person thanked me for the ministry I was doing, and I had never thought of it as a ministry,” Luis said, “But now I do.”