Piano man spreads joy through music therapy

Friday, February 3, 2012 | 12:01 a.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — As Dan DeLuca's fingers bounced across the keys of his electric piano, the IV leaking chemotherapy medicine into his body danced against the floor of his hospital room.

DeLuca, a leukemia patient, rocked and bobbed his bald head to the sounds of Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," smiling as he played. A hospital social worker who was visiting his room Friday afternoon also smiled, as did the nurses who scurried in and out of patient rooms on the eighth floor of the Kansas City Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Since DeLuca, a 69-year-old Kansas City musician, came to the unit for a five-week stay, music has filled its corridors.

"His playing is infectious throughout this hospital," said Kelly Artis, the social worker. "It's enjoyable, and it's inspiring."

She and the nurses said they can't remember ever having music like DeLuca's drifting through the halls every day. On several days, the music lured patients, visitors and members of the hospital staff to congregate outside his room and listen to him play.

"It's soothing," said Helen Livingston, who has worked the floor for 14 years. "It's heavenly."

Which cannot be said of his battle with cancer.

"The first week of treatment was tough," DeLuca said. "That chemo wipes everything out of your body. The pain was an 8 on a scale of zero to 10."

But then he got his doctor's permission to have his 28-pound Casio and old wooden bench brought into his room.

"I'm a spiritual person," DeLuca said. "I think music is the pipeline to the spiritual. I combined the music in my life with the spiritual in my life. I think it's going to keep me alive a little longer."

DeLuca has spent hours at the keyboard every day pouring out old standards and show tunes from the 1930s to the '60s.

"No one has complained yet," he said, tinkering with synthesizer buttons until he conjured up a Bossa Nova rhythm.

After "Girl from Ipanema," he promised something "more modern," but warned his audience not to expect any Lady Gaga or Snoop Dogg.

"Memory," from the musical "Cats," filled the room.

DeLuca has played piano since childhood. Aside from a brief stint as a short-order cook and the four years — from 1962 to 1966 — when he played the bass drum in the U.S. Navy, the piano has been his living.

Twice, he played for Bob Hope and guests at the comedian's Palm Springs home. He also said he once played a duet with Jack Lemmon back when DeLuca worked in hotels around San Francisco.

In Kansas City, DeLuca serenaded guests at the Adams Mark Hotel and set the musical ambiance for diners at the American Restaurant, Ophelia's and some of the city's other fine restaurants. Once, Ginger Rogers walked into a restaurant he was working so he played tunes from her movies that he said brought tears to the aged performer's eyes.

Music, DeLuca said, is his nourishment. "If you were to stop eating, your health would suffer."

"Along with the great care I'm getting here at the hospital, I do believe the music has made me better. I'm in remission now. I don't feel sick. And then when I see that it is also giving other people joy, the feeling for me is just doubled."

DeLuca is to go home Sunday.

His doctor, David Bodensteiner, a hematologist, said he, too, recognizes music's healing power and insisted that DeLuca have his piano during his hospital stay.

"He is a very accomplished pianist, and we all have enjoyed listening," Bodensteiner said. "I think that anything that you can do to raise the mood of the people will help them in their recovery."

As he swung into "Emily" on Friday, DeLuca noted, "everyone around here is smiling. It makes me happy. I crave having my fingers on these keys. I just don't think I could ever do without it. It's the joy of my life."

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