Musician Medic Geno McManus
Nancy J Parisi
At the open door of a sunny hospital room, with a barely audible television up high on one of its walls turned to a cable news channel, local musician Geno McManus plays “Over the Rainbow” on acoustic guitar, his voice gentle and sweet, eyes locked on the patient—a teenage girl in a coma, in a bed ten feet away.
Someone has taped several hand-written notes on the door for visitors, listing suggestions on how to speak to her. One directive says not to speak about her as if she is not in the room; the room is decorated with dozens of drawings and loving notes.
On this winter afternoon, McManus has been wending his way through Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo as a volunteer for Musician Medics, a program created in January 2013 by Buffalo Music Hall of Fame. Today, with assistance from Tara Young, child life specialist at the hospital, McManus and fellow musician volunteer Vinnie DeRosa visit patients in rooms (if they’re up for a visit), as well as in common areas where kids sit and play games with other children and family members.
DeRosa is down on one knee playing a pop tune on his guitar for a toddler in her stroller in her room, her face interested yet stoic. He then does an original song before moving along. In another room a young boy, surrounded by family members, smiles at him as he plays and sways slowly in the center of the room. There is a round of applause and he moves onward to the next musical burst, strumming along down the hallway.
Later McManus reflects on the experience of playing for the teen in her doorway: “I kept looking and wondering if the music was reaching her, for some movement or some kind of communication. You think ‘maybe today I’ll see something.’”
“As child life specialist, I work with kids and families to help with their coping, to lessen their stress. I coordinate entertainment for the hospital, we try to make it more of a home environment, to normalize the hospital; so bringing art and music in is extremely important to a child and the child’s wellbeing,” says Young. “So we celebrate every possible holiday.
“After the musicians leave, the kids talk about it for hours—that musicians came to see them and showed them how their instruments work. They light up talking about their experience. You can’t help but to smile, it brightens up everyone’s moods. The musicians don’t just have musical talent; they have great people skills. They connect to the kids and the families.”
DeRosa talks about how he got involved with Musician Medics. “Bruce Moser [rock and roll promoter, 2006 Hall of Fame inductee, and HoF board of trustees member] got in touch with me. He’s a family friend and he had me out at the V.A.—it was Veterans’ Day, and they had me set up in the foyer playing. This has been an amazing experience; it permeates everyone in the building, from the ladies at the main desk to the people in the hallways to people in the elevators. In between visiting patients, I croon to the nurses. A lady in the front here asked if I could play something by Sting—I hit her with a couple. She’s eighty years old.
“Music has taken me out of some of the darkest places in my life. When I was a little kid I had a cardiac condition that brought me here. I’d sit here with my mom and my mom made the best of it, but I can empathize with the parents more now, they also need a break.”
McManus adds, “I had asked what songs we should play, I don’t know a lot of kid songs. They said ‘Anything!’ I did learn one song from Frozen, “Love is an Open Door”—I taped the lyrics to my guitar. We take a lot of requests—I had a kid who liked Johnny Cash.”
Heidi Raphael, who gave Musician Medics its name, serves on the advisory board of the Hall of Fame and is vice president of corporate communication at Greater Media, Inc. She speaks passionately about the program: “I was inspired by some national programs; I saw what they were doing in Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York and thought, ‘Why can’t we do this with all the great music that we have here in Buffalo—and through the Hall of Fame.
Raphael notes that the program’s catch phrase is “Play it Forward,” adding, “The Music Hall of Fame is doing such good work, so why not work through them? Rick Sargent (another Hall of Fame trustee) is our Musician Medics ambassador. This is a team effort: it’s Rick, Anthony Casuccio [Hall of Fame board president], the musicians, and our underwriter George Hyde, Jr. [of The Hyde Foundation].
“We kicked off the program with a ‘soft launch’ of several appearances starting in January of 2013 at Roswell Park Cancer Institute with the help of Bruce Moser. He and music writer Bob Silvestri secured a special guest appearance by national country recording artist Jerrod Niemann, who was in Western New York to perform a concert that evening. They also secured another Musician Medics performer, pianist Richie English, who performed onsite for patients and their families several times in the lobby area. Richie has been outstanding.”
A week after the Children’s Hospital visit, The Buffalo Dolls performed a Musician Medics show across town at Buffalo V.A. Medical Center on Bailey Avenue. The trio, in matching festive red dresses, played in a lounge on the ninth floor Willow Lodge Hospice Unit, decorated for Christmas. Band members Rusty Droz, Donna Kerr, and Carolyn Unitas-Roos sang big band and swing-era classics to recorded music, mixing with their audience, enthusiastic patients and hospital staff, between sets. They thanked all for listening, and for their service: the trio is, to date, one of twenty-eight acts on the growing Musician Medics roster.
Artist/photographer/writer Nancy J. Parisi is a longtime Spree contributor.