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Piano at the Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital is more than an instrument

Karen Dimmick plays the piano at the Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital during one of her weekly volunteer shifts. Credit: Kevin Stankiewicz | Editor-in-Chief

A piano is a piano until it’s not.

Music is just music until it’s more.

The piano in the Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital extends beyond its simple existence as an instrument. The impact of its music delves deeper than merely a pretty sound, soothing the thoughts of the concerned minds around it.

You wouldn’t know it if you just saw it there, on the left side of the first-floor lobby, not making a sound as it sits draped in a black, comforter-like cover. Because in that state, it looks like any other Steinhauer grand piano draped in a black, comforter-like cover. Which is to say it looks at rest, peaceful. Like it would sound beautiful, if someone would just play it.

Karen Dimmick plays it and has since 2012. She plays it on Wednesdays, from 1 to 3 p.m., and she plays it well. She is among five volunteers who regularly play it, so she knows that when the cover is removed this Steinhauer has a special sound. A special quality.

It relaxes. It calms. It eases.

It’s why people often approach Dimmick and anyone playing this piano to offer kind words like a simple “thank-you” or comment on how beautiful it sounds.

“It gets their mind off what they’re thinking about,” Dimmick said recently before one of her volunteer shifts.

What they’re thinking about, of course, probably has to do with why they’re in a hospital that specializes in caring for one of our most vital organs. Everyone would prefer not to have a reason to be there, but since they are, Dimmick likes to use her skill to make a difference, however large or small.

Howard Nikkel has been coming to the Ross Hospital for more than two years — first to get a device installed to help his heart pump blood, then to have a heart transplant.

The music from the piano “doesn’t make you want to spin around and dance,” Nikkel said, but when he was visiting the hospital around the time of his transplant — a time filled with uncertainty — the music made a difference to him. It still does when he visits now.

“It was so nice to have something to relax you while you’re waiting for the doctor,” Nikkel said recently during a trip to the hospital for one of his biannual check-ups.

As Nikkel walked through the lobby, he stopped to tell Dimmick he appreciated her music. He said he always tries to thank whomever is playing because “they need to know they’re heard, and that it’s helpful.”

It helped the woman who, a few years ago, came down from a fourth-floor waiting room to tell Dimmick she could hear the music she was playing — the hospital’s open, atrium-like lobby lets the sound travel — while her husband was undergoing a serious procedure.

It helped the man who, about a year ago, was called for his appointment, but didn’t go back until Dimmick finished the song she was playing. He stood there instead, waiting by the piano and shooing off the staff member who repeatedly called his name.

“It’s just really a neat touch,” Larry Weghorst said. Weghorst was at the hospital recently while a family member underwent a successful valve-replacement surgery. On his way back from a soda run, he stopped to tell Dimmick he appreciated her music.

Karen Dimmick plays the piano in the lobby of the Richard M. Ross Heart Hospital during one of her recent volunteer shifts. Credit: Kevin Stankiewicz | Editor-in-Chief

As he waited to catch an elevator, with the piano’s sound filling the air, Weghorst said, “By itself, the music is just pretty.”

But he also said you can’t separate the music from the environment it’s played in. An environment at the hospital that was “the most welcoming environment you can have when you need it the most.”

And that was the goal of putting the piano in the lobby. It arrived in 2012. Charles Bush, an interventional cardiologist at the Wexner Medical Center, championed its inclusion in the building to help create a relaxing atmosphere. It’s also why the James Cancer Hospital brings in music to its lobby. Sometimes it’s a guitar player; at least once there was a barbershop quartet.

When Dimmick started playing during her shift Wednesday, there was a noticeable change in the lobby. A calm seemed to descend; people kept walking by and conversations continued — it’s not like the music froze people in their tracks — but a sense of ease fell over the place.

Of course, any time music is played in a public place there’s going to be a shift in the atmosphere, but that shift isn’t always receptive. Take the piano on the second floor of the Ohio Union. When someone starts playing it, it can feel intrusive, distracting. Especially if you came there to study.

It’s different at the Ross. When that cover comes off, and the shiny, black Steinhauer starts being played, it’s relaxing. It’s calming. It’s easing.

It’s no longer just an instrument. It’s no longer just music.

It’s something more.

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