Every day, thousands, of patients, family members, and staff walk through the front doors of the Ruth & Raymond Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine (PCAM). For some, it’s just a typical day at work, but for others, it can be one of the most stressful days of their lives. No matter what brings someone through those doors, one can’t help but notice the soothing sounds of a piano playing softly in the lobby. It’s a sound that can relieve tension, brighten spirits, and inspire heartwarming interactions. This is just part of the work of Vince Gilhool, otherwise known as Penn Medicine’s Piano Man.
Gilhool came to Penn Medicine in the summer of 2003 as a stage 3 head and neck cancer patient. After chemotherapy and 37 radiation therapy treatments, he underwent a modified neck dissection that September. “I had 40 metal staples in my neck, but no discomfort, no pain, no infection,” Gilhool recalled of the quality of care he received. Soon after, he was declared completely cancer free, but his time at Penn was just beginning.
Three years after his cancer treatment ended, Gilhool was introduced to Reiki therapy, a non-invasive practice that the Abramson Cancer Center describes as promoting, “balance and well-being. Reiki involves light touch of the practitioner's hands on or slightly above your body.”
Gilhool credits his introduction to the therapy to a family friend. “A friend of ours had been telling us for years that she had been doing Reiki, and I decided to be trained in it. As soon as I completed my training, I knew it was one of the best decisions I ever made.” The Reiki therapy program at Penn, now in its 11th year, has been the recipient of Gilhool’s services for the last nine. “In the beginning, the Reiki program was only open to cancer patients, but that changed. Cancer doesn’t have a monopoly on suffering,” said Gilhool. On a slow day, Gilhool will spend 10-20 minutes each with three patients. On busy days, Gilhool may spend time with as many as 10 patients.
Gilhool has also been the beneficiary of Reiki. “I had suffered a mini stroke, and I was expecting something and it ended up being a completely different experience,” Gilhool said of his first experience with Reiki. “I laid down on the table a hot mess; sluggish, uncoordinated, and with a headache, but afterward I got up like it never happened. I got up full of energy. I’ve had patients who have been emotional wrecks or in incredible pain. And two or three minutes after I started, they were able to let go of their pain.”
Around the time Gilhool became a Reiki volunteer, he also took up the mantel of the resident PCAM piano player. It’s just another talent the former security supervisor at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, possesses. However, in contrast to Reiki, Gilhool learned to play music at an early age. “I started studying the piano when I was a teenager. My teacher was brilliant. She knew I wouldn’t practice so she worked with me on the songs ‘Tammy’ and ‘The Way You Look Tonight,’ and I’ve been playing them ever since. But you can’t have just two songs, so I worked on growing and learning more.”
For Gilhool, playing the piano is about more than just practicing an instrument. “I was playing the Bach prelude in C one day, and when I finished playing, I walked by a woman in a wheelchair, and she called me over and she said, ‘I have to tell you, I had the worst news of my life today, and now I feel so much better.’ That only had to happen once for me to know this is something I had to do.”
On another day, Gilhool says a male patient walked up to him and said, “you have no idea how much I needed that.”
When asked about this relationship with patients, Gilhool smiled, “I am so lucky to be here. People say, ‘you’re so nice to do this.’ I get it back a hundred fold.”
Whether it’s through Reiki therapy or music, Penn Medicine’s piano man is most interested in helping patients in whatever they are going through. “This piano isn’t just for me. There used to be a sign that says, ‘if your talent permits, please feel free to play for the enjoyment of others,’ and that goes a long way in making this a great atmosphere.”
As we finished our conversation, Gilhool took the time to play a few songs on the piano. At the conclusion of his performance, a patient walked up to GIlhool and asked, with tears in her eyes, if she could give him a hug. “See what I mean?” Gilhool asked with a smile.