TAMPA — He keeps his keyboard in the nurses' closet on the trauma ward, beside the potty chairs and batteries.
Three days a week, he takes out the Casio and sets it on a cart. He pushes the cart slowly, cradling the keyboard with one arm, through the long hallways of Tampa General Hospital.
His name is William C. Ismer. Everyone calls him Bill or "The Piano Man." He is 65, a Navy veteran, a retired cop. Most of the nurses know his story.
On this Thursday morning, he rolls his portable piano into the cardiac intensive care unit, turns into the last room on the right.
The room he almost died in, 13 years ago.
"Good morning!" he calls to a pale man in the railed bed. "I told you I'd be back. How you doing?"
The man shakes his head. He didn't sleep last night. He's struggling to breathe. He's trying to hold on for a new heart, but doctors have no idea when the right one might be donated.
Ismer sets up his keyboard in the corner, then bends over the bed. "It's okay to be scared," he says. "I was scared too.
"Now just relax and I'll play some music for you."
• • •
For the first 54 years of his life, Ismer says, "I was pretty much a hard a--."
He grew up tough in Pittsburgh and dropped out of high school to join the Navy. As a Broward County sheriff's deputy, he never cut anyone any slack. "Talk about rigid," he says.
By the time Ismer retired, he had blown through three marriages and most of his friends. One of his sons had died at age 16, struck by lightning. The other wasn't talking to him.
When he had a heart attack in 1998 and a nurse asked him whom she should call, Ismer couldn't think of anyone who would care.
"I had burned all the bridges," he says.
In the hospital, Ismer started reading the Bible. He made a list of everyone he needed to ask for forgiveness. He called his son, who came home for Christmas.
Soon doctors told Ismer he needed a new heart.
For seven months, he waited in the cardiac unit while machines kept him alive. He had a long time, there on his back, to make plans for how he would change if he survived.
He confided in his favorite nurse, Debbie. She held his hand.
Six days after the surgery, Ismer was discharged — able to breathe easily for the first time in almost a year. He started taking long walks along Tampa's waterfront. With Debbie. He started going to Sunday services with her at East Thonotosassa Baptist Church. On April 21, 2000, they got married there.
"I joined the praise band. One day, after the piano player retired, I sat down on that bench and just started playing," Ismer says. "I didn't know what I was doing. But my fingers seemed to."
• • •
He stands behind his keyboard, light from the lone window spilling over his shoulders, and unzips the black three-ring binder filled with sheet music: Beethoven's Grand Fugue Op. 133, Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Ismer is not sure how or when he learned to read music. The gift, he says, came with his new heart. He wonders if the donor was a pianist.
He feels an urgency, he says, to show his gratitude, to give back. Over seven years, Ismer has volunteered more than 2,000 hours at Tampa General.
Sometimes he plays hymns. Sometimes country: Willie or Elvis. Billy Joel, the Beatles, whatever the patient might find soothing.
He played In the Presence of Jehovah for a mother whose infant twins died at birth. When he played What I Did For Love for a 40-year-old woman waiting for a kidney, she sang along.
Today, in the same room where he thought he was going to die, he turns pages until he lands on the Broadway section. The patient's wife told Ismer she and her husband used to go to dinner theater productions all the time before he got sick.
Glen Kralapp is 65 — the same age as Ismer. His wife, Mary Kay, is 55 — the same age as Ismer's wife. Kralapp retired from a career surveying hospitals. His wife is a lawyer. They have been married 19 years and raised five children between them.
"We have been here almost three weeks," says his wife. "Glen was just getting so depressed."
That first week, when Ismer rolled his keyboard into Kralapp's room, he perked up at the Broadway tunes. "The music made a big difference," says his wife. "But Bill also brought hope, which was what we really needed."
After talking to Ismer, after seeing someone who has already gained 13 more years with his transplant, Kralapp stopped talking about death. He told his wife he wants to go fishing off their dock again, take the Boston terriers for more walks.
"You can do it," Ismer says. "You will do it."
Slowly, softly, he begins to play the opening bars of Memory from Cats. The music is just loud enough to drown out the beeping monitor.
"That helps considerably," Kralapp murmurs. From behind the Casio, Ismer sees the patient settle into his pillow, hears him sigh. Then the man closes his eyes and finally drifts into sleep.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.