A trip to the hospital can be emotionally overwhelming. Tension and anxiety fill the air as patients and loved ones worry about injuries and illnesses.
But things are brighter in the main hospital lobby at Dignity Health-St. Mary Medical Center where, five mornings a week, Gene Rogers fills the air with gentle music.
Renee Ridgeway said she went to St. Mary Medical Center during one of the most stressful times of her life.
“Hearing the piano and seeing Mr. Rogers playing and looking so happy just lifted my spirits,” she said. “It calmed and relaxed me before I had to face a difficult day.”
St. Mary’s beloved piano man is a 77-year-old who has been volunteering at the hospital since 1981. The Bixby Knolls resident is legally blind, having entered the world with congenital eye defects and significant vision impairment.
“My eyes just never matured when I was born,” Rogers explained.
Despite his visual challenges, he spent years working at McDonnell Douglas, wrapping parts as they came off the line. During the late 1970s, Rogers’ impairments grew more severe and he became a patient at St. Mary’s Low Vision Center. When he could no longer see enough to work, he started volunteering at St. Mary.
Unable to drive, Rogers leaves home each weekday around 6:30 a.m., using his cane to reach the bus stop. When he gets to the hospital, he usually starts his day at the piano. Later, he helps in the volunteer office, collating and packaging patient discharge packets. Rogers finishes the morning with another round of songs in the lobby, heading back home around 11:30 a.m.
Rogers said he never really had piano lessons, but a teacher showed him a few chords when he was 12 or 13. He plays most songs by ear, mainly old standards from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, although he said he does play some requests.
“If I have the melody in my mind, I can pretty well do it,” Rogers said. “But I don’t do as well with the newer stuff.”
On March 13, KNX News Radio made Gene Rogers its “Hero of the Week” and aired a brief interview with the volunteer. A man from Catalina heard the segment and traveled to the St. Mary Medical Center just to hear him play. Another woman told Rogers that she comes in because it is the only place she can listen to someone play the piano without having to buy a ticket.
According to Megan Martinez, communications manager at Dignity Health-St. Mary, people often express joy after listening to Rogers.
“He is very humble,” Martinez said. “Because he is blind, he doesn’t see the impact he has on patients’ families and visitors, as well as the daily impact on the staff who come to work and start their days off on the right note with live piano music.”
Rogers downplays his role, saying he volunteers because he needs to stay busy.
“I can’t just sit around the house in a rocking chair reading Braille books,” Rogers said. “People don’t want to go to the hospital, but if they have to come in, I want to give them something relaxing to listen to.”