Volunteering His Time

By Rebecca Calappi

It was jealousy that brought Michael Kowalski to the harp.

“I was playing bass and tuba in an Irish bar band and the harp player kept getting all the attention,” Kowalski explained.

The year was 1999. He was 50 years old and decided it was time to learn a new instrument.

Now, at age 67, Kowalski gave up playing in bars and takes his talent to Henry Ford Macomb Hospital. Two days a week he loads his custom-made Irish harp into a wheelchair and sets up in various medical units and waiting rooms throughout the hospital.

“Because of my heart problems, I like to play on the coronary step-down unit and I like to play in the ICUs, because I like to look at the monitors and see heart rates going down once in a while,” the New Baltimore resident said. “One time I was playing [in the ICU] and someone had just passed. Everyone came out of the room to listen. I played “Blue Skies.” It seemed like the right song for some reason.”

The melodies he plays, no matter who their intended audience, always resonate with the staff. “You can be knee deep in crazy and all of a sudden something stops you and it’s just, ‘Ahhh,’” said Candy Best, R.N. at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital. “He’s a soulful man. You can tell he’s spiritual. I think he really knows people are listening to him.”

An informal poll of the nursing managers and staff members at the hospital came up with the same word when describing Kowalski: calming. As the assistant nurse manager on the neurology and cardiac units at the hospital, Best said the harp music isn’t just surprising, it’s mood lifting, especially if you’re working a 12-hour shift and the day is hectic. “It’s nice to zone out and hear him,” Best explained.

He began playing at the hospital in 2008 just after he lost his job and found himself with extra time. But don’t think he just sits in the background playing beautifully, he takes requests and has a mental musical catalogue of upwards of 400 songs. Though he’s partial to British Invasion music – The Beatles, The Animals, The Rolling Stones – he knows songs from the charts today as well. “If I see somebody who looks like they need Motown, I’ll play Motown for them,” Kowalski said. “I take requests in waiting rooms and once in a while I get people singing.”

However, he does have to be careful about his song selections in certain units. “I was asked not to play, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot,’ but there’s no problem with, “Stairway to Heaven,’” he chuckled.

Things really get rocking when he gives a private concert for a patient or visitor. “If I see someone looking at it (harp), I’ll have them play it. I have things they can do so they’ll sound good,” he said. “And if they have a cell phone, I make them take a picture of themselves playing the harp.”

Kowalski is a self-professed computer geek who is now retired from the IT department at Lear Corp. The combination of math and music works for him. In addition to the harp, he plays piano, bass, tuba, mandolin and guitar. “I can also play the fiddle, but I’m not proficient at it,” he added.

No matter his proficiencies, Kowalski’s talents and time don’t go unappreciated. “I can’t really say enough nice about him,” said Best. “It’s just so nice that someone so willingly does what he does.”

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