WASHINGTON - Every Friday, you can find Cerlene Rose in the lobby of Sibley Hospital in Washington, playing the piano.

It's a routine she began 20 years ago, as a way of dealing with grief over her husband's death. But what started out as therapy became something more. She found the joy of sharing her music with others not only therapeutic, but a lifesaver.

“I lost my husband in 1991 and for five years I was really at loose ends and started to get very depressed," she said. "And I thought, psychologically, if you help somebody else, you help yourself. And that's how I came to Sibley to play the piano.”

Rose has been playing piano since she was six years old. Mostly self-taught, she plays a variety of music, all from memory, and only has to hear a piece once to play it.

Cerlene Rose plays piano every Friday in the lobby
Cerlene Rose plays piano every Friday in the lobby of Sibley Hospital in Washington, D.C. (J. Taboh/VOA)

Favorite melodies

On this rainy day at the hospital, she plays popular tunes like "Memories," from the play Cats, and the theme song from the film Dr. Zhivago, and often pauses to ask visitors about their favorite tunes.

She recalls a particular instance.

“We had a man come in one day that asked for "The Beautiful Ohio" and I said ‘I don’t know that, but hum it for me’ and he started to hum "Beautiful Ohio" and I played the whole thing and he got tears in his eyes and I said, ‘Oh, I hope my playing isn’t that bad’ and he said,‘No, it’s my wife’s favorite song and she’s terminal.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, if I never do anything else today, at least I did something for him.'”

It's that spirit of giving that has made Rose so popular.

Marianne Monek, director of Sibley's volunteer program, is thrilled to have Rose at the hospital. “Her piano playing, her musical skills, it just brings so much joy to everyone, not only patients, not only family numbers, but staff."

Laboratory manager Anita Mattero stops by regularly to hear Rose play. On a recent visit, she presented Rose with a gift -- a handmade purple shawl -- as a token of her appreciation.

"I like to give to people who give to me," she explained. "There are times in the laboratory where I need to get away for a couple of minutes. I always let her pick a tune. Her smile and care for me as a human dissolves negativity and helps me get through my day... She’s an angel sent from heaven to watch over us and assure we are okay."

Patient Sondra Snyder shared her warm feelings toward Rose on a recent visit to Sibley.

“When I walked in the front door I was very nervous, uptight, not happy about having to get up in the morning and come here," she said. "And there was Cerlene, playing the piano with music that relaxed me, made me feel much better about being here at the hospital.”

Longtime volunteer Ann Ittner said everyone feels that way. "You come in here and it’s very cheerful music and she’s got quite a following. And when she’s not here on Friday, everybody comes over, ‘where’s Cerlene?’"

Cerlene Rose plays piano every Friday in the lobby
Cerlene Rose plays piano every Friday in the lobby of Sibley Hospital in Washington, D.C. (J. Taboh/VOA)

Gift of music

Rose said that after all these years, she’s glad she can still brighten everyone's day.

“It makes you feel warm and good inside because you know you have done something worthwhile and you're helping someone else," she said. "And I think this is what life is all about.”

She feels that's something her late husband would have been proud of. “Whenever I do something where I'm helping people I always feel that my husband is with me and he’s saying, ‘good job!’”