Mary Sutherland survived surgery for pancreatic cancer but wondered what she was meant to do with the rest of her life. She found the answer: playing piano for patients at The Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.
After a doctor’s appointment in 2009, Mary and Howard Sutherland rushed to leave the Center for Advanced Medicine (CAM) at Barnes-Jewish Hospital hoping to avoid the annoying recorded sound of the player piano in the lobby. But the married couple, both musicians, stopped suddenly when they heard a flutist playing the hauntingly beautiful Méditation intermezzo from the opera Thaïs.
Mary thought that the live music sounded incomplete because the flutist was playing alone and needed to be accompanied by a pianist. Hoping they could help, the couple headed to the lobby of the building, which houses Siteman Cancer Center as well as numerous doctors’ offices, labs and treatment facilities.
“I introduced myself and said, ‘Look, do you have the music for the piano here? I can play with you,’” says Mary, a lifelong pianist, teacher, vocal coach, composer, musical theater director, and choral and church music director. “And that’s how it all started.”
The flutist, who then worked in the hospital’s department of neurology, happily accepted Mary’s offer and suggested the couple contact Sarah Colby, the coordinator of Arts + Healthcare, a program funded by The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital to bring art to patients as part of their healing process. Sarah got their names placed on the regular schedule of volunteers who perform at the CAM.
Mary, a collaborative pianist who partners with other artists, and Howard, both an aeronautical engineer and professional classical singer, ended up performing together longer than any other scheduled musicians at the CAM. Howard, who died in 2015 at the age of 91, was a highly regarded tenor who had performed as a soloist in oratorios, operas, and recitals with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Roger Wagner Chorale, Robert Shaw Atlanta Symphony Chorale, Opera Atlanta and many other famous musical groups.
He sang at the CAM until he was 89. Mary, 77, a Siteman volunteer, still performs there two to three times a week, often with fellow volunteer and clarinetist Mark Thiel. Even when COVID-19 restrictions prevented her from playing inside the building, she made musical videos that were posted on Siteman’s website to help cancer patients relax.
From Addams Family to Schubert
Sarah remembers being thrilled when the couple began to perform. It was a time when the player piano had become the subject of numerous complaints and jokes because of the repetitious music it produced from CDs. However, the union of Mary’s playing and Howard’s singing transformed the scorned instrument into a source of beauty and joy.
“When Mary and Howard came, that piano just had its entrails hanging out, it just had that electrical cord,” Sarah says. “It reminds me how far that piano has come.”
She tells the story of a concierge staff member who would roll his eyes and threaten to destroy the CDs because they were driving everyone in the building crazy.
“I don’t know if this is true,” Sarah says, “but he told me that a woman complained to him that she couldn’t stand it anymore because the piano kept playing the theme from the Addams Family over and over again.”
Although Sarah has other pianists, she credits Mary and Howard with giving her the confidence to pull the plug on the piano’s electronics and hide the CDs.
“They were the fire starters,” she says.
Now, Mary’s soothing performances of Brahms, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Schubert and other great composers completely change the environment of the CAM. The music serves as a healing tool and lifts the spirits of patients and their families as well as the staff.
“You can see in their faces that it’s doing something. I can’t possibly know how many people it is affecting,” Mary says. “It’s so much more than playing.”
Thinking back about all the many comments she has heard over the years, Mary remembers a woman who had been getting treatments at Siteman. The woman approached Mary looking for Howard.
“She was very wound up, so keyed up that day,” Mary says. “She said ‘Where’s that man, the one who sings? If I could just hear his voice, I could go in for my treatments.’ And that’s what he did for people. He wasn’t a crooner. He was just a very good singer.”
Bringing Light Into Darkness
Mary knows all too well what Siteman patients are experiencing. She has survived both endometrial and pancreatic cancer, the latter being diagnosed in 2019. Her team included surgeon William Hawkins, MD, chief, Section of Hepatobiliary-Pancreatic and Gastrointestinal Surgery, Washington University School of Medicine, oncologist Benjamin Tan, MD, and nurse practitioner Ashley Morton, ANP.
She discussed her relationship with them in a video played as part of the Foundation’s virtual 2021 Illumination Gala.
“When I met my Siteman team I felt even then that we all are collaborating. I was not alone, though my team saw light where I did not know there was any. My oncologist Dr. Tan and nurse practitioner Ashley Morton would bring light into the room,” Mary says in the video. “I had the best surgeon in the country, and no one was as happy as Dr. Hawkins when the lab results came back. They were all clear and they continue until this day. So here I am living another day and very grateful.”
Mary continued to play at the CAM while getting chemotherapy treatments. Her covered head proved to be an even greater attraction to other cancer patients who told Mary their stories and shared insights about their personal growth during their cancer journeys. They knew she would understand.
And she still does. In fact, the very first day she returned to the CAM after pandemic restrictions were lifted in the spring, Mary noticed a middle-aged man and woman listening intently to her play. When Mary took a brief break, she spoke with them. They were a married couple and the husband confided that he had just undergone his first radiation treatment. While the wife appeared calm on the surface, Mary could see the anxiety in her eyes.
“I told them I was a pancreatic cancer survivor and the expression on the wife’s face changed. It was like ‘Oh, yes, you get it.’”
After Mary underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer, she wondered why she had survived and what she was meant to do with the rest of her life. Playing at the CAM proves she’s in the right place.
“What could be better than playing here? More people get touched than in any other time in my life,” she says. “I really love doing it."