Pianist lends soothing sounds

Volunteer: Entertainer Ed Rouch, 90, uses music to lift the spirits of patients and their families at GBMC in Towson.

April 24, 2004|By William Wheeler | William Wheeler,SUN STAFF

The busy lobby of a major metropolitan hospital might be the last place you'd expect to hear the lilting melody of "As Time Goes By."

But that's just where you'll find Ed Rouch, coaxing the classic theme from Casablanca from the Baldwin baby grand piano at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. Three days a week, the 90-year-old retired insurance underwriter can be found at the Towson hospital, lifting the spirits of patients and their friends and relatives.

With 84 years of musical experience, Rouch - who says he likes the piano "because you don't have to carry it" - is a lively entertainer. His eyes sparkle behind gold-rimmed glasses as he trades banter with the curious newcomers, hospital staff and regulars who surround him.

Rouch is "outgoing, personable, you'd never know he's 90," said hospital spokesman Michael Schwartzberg. As Rouch responds while playing to a barrage of smiles, questions and greetings, he looks 30 years younger.

Dressed in a khaki blazer and navy slacks, Rouch took a seat at the piano Monday as the hospital began its celebration of National Volunteer Week. He is one of GBMC's 800 volunteers, and one of three 90 or older. They do everything from work in the gift shop to run a golf-cart parking-lot shuttle for patients.

"When I came, I said, `I want to volunteer, but I don't want to push carts because they're too heavy. Or at least the people they put in them are,'" Rouch said with a laugh.

The hospital gig is the capstone to a varied career. Rouch served three years with the Marines as a mail clerk in the Philippines, Okinawa and Korea during World War II. He played with Dixieland bands and Shriners in his hometown of Kansas City, Mo.

The insurance business brought Rouch's family of five to Baltimore in 1970. He retired in 1984, at age 70, and took up a job playing the piano at Nordstrom's department store in Towson Town Center.

Rouch came to GBMC three years ago after leaving Nordstrom's. The hospital features carpeted and hardwood floors, gentle lighting and music played by Rouch and other volunteers. These elements help to soften the atmosphere, part of "the big picture of healing," Schwartzberg said.

The third-floor lobby at GBMC, next to the emergency room entrance, is a place where visitors' experiences are "oftentimes laced with anxiety," said Joe Hart, director of the hospital's spiritual support services. He believes that patients find comfort in Rouch's music, which "is a great gift to help them in their healing."

Rouch also plays downstairs in the obstetrics atrium. Many of the more than 22,000 babies born there in the past five years have been greeted by Rouch's melodies. Hart said, "expectant parents and grandparents are often thankful for the diversion." The music "adds a very warm, inviting presence," said Eileen Caslow, 82, who returned to the lobby after having blood work done to hear Rouch play while she waited for her ride. "I love this music. It's my music," she added with a smile as Rouch played a Frank Sinatra tune.

Rouch said his most requested song is "As Time Goes By." He also takes cues from the weather, playing "Let It Snow," "Stormy Weather" or "Singin' in the Rain."

"I'll let you in on a secret," Rouch said. "People don't know if you're good or bad. They only know if you touch a soft spot in them."

Rouch tailors his set list to accommodate any sentimental favorites among those in the crowd - or to play a recently departed loved one's favorite song.

When 3-year-old Emma Kinsey, who was visiting her grandmother, approached, Rouch asked her if she wanted to try to guess a tune.

He began a soft rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," which she delightfully recognized and applauded. For Rouch, moments like those are the reward for his service.

"This is all I want. I'm fortunate they let me do it," he said.

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