Winship pianist brings story of Parkinson's, perseverance

11:03 PM, Dec 25, 2013   |    comments
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For 75 years, metro Atlantans have come to the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University for the prevention and treatment of cancer.

And right in the lobby, they can occasionally find a man who is fighting through his own struggle.

Bruce Gilbert is a 63-year-old, once-a-week volunteer who plays the piano in the Winship lobby.

"I'm good for an hour generally," he says.

And what happens after an hour?

"I start to fry."

That is when Gilbert walks away, visibly shaking, and resumes his own battle -- with Parkinson's disease.

"All my movement, it kind of feels like you're in a heavy body suit," Gilbert says.

He was diagnosed in 2006; then wife Lex and he moved to Atlanta.

"She's very steady as a human being, emotionally steady," Gilbert says of his wife. "I tend to be much more erratic."

"I just try and get him to laugh about it," Lex Gilbert says. "We can't do anything about it, so we may as well laugh."

Her husband does do one thing: play his instrument every chance he gets.

"If I'm not medicated, I can't play at all," says Gilbert of what he once did so regularly. "I'd say I'm about 80 percent of what I used to be. When the medicine wears off, my hands just freeze."

This lifelong pianist swears on how music has held off Parkinson's.

"My body has figured out a way to do what my body demand it do," Gilbert said. "[Parkinson's] is gaining on me, and I know that, and I can feel it, and I'm just trying to stretch it out as long as I can."

But Gilbert arrived at Winship through a different fight: the fight of his wife.

Lex Gilbert was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011.

"He just really wants to do the best thing he can for everybody else," says Lex of her husband's efforts at that time. "He's so selfless, just an extraordinary guy."

Today Lex is a colon cancer survivor. And through their visits to Winship, her husband found a way, during his family's struggles, to help others.

"I had played there a few times," recalled Gilbert, "and a lady came up to me. She looked me straight in the eye and said, 'This is the worst day of my life. And the only thing that brought me joy was hearing you play.' And that's when I said, 'I'm gonna do this.'"

And so, each week, Bruce Gilbert plays on, cherishing his chance to make beautiful music.

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