Michael Casinelli cradled his Martin D 28 guitar in his lap, a cup of coffee by his left foot. Patients and families from Roswell Park Cancer Institute mingled nearby. He played from memory, filling the lobby with the best of Elton John, Ray Charles and Van Morrison.
"This is my favorite place to play," said Casinelli, wearing a black leather skull cap, black leather boots, a turquoise shirt and jeans.
There's a story behind his snug skull cap. Unexpectedly, he found himself on the other side of the equation.
Casinelli's music journey at Roswell Park began a year ago while he was a patient, fighting a rare and aggressive form of sarcoma that has since led to 14 surgeries. Within hours of having his first major surgery to grind off half the outer layer of his skull, he did the unthinkable.
His head bandaged, he made his way down to the lobby the morning of July 2, 2016, and unplugged his IV for an hour so he could make music for others.
"I'm playing, and I've got bandages on me and things, there's an instant connection you have with other cancer patients," Casinelli said. "I don't need to say something to them. I already know how they feel and they know how I feel."
The 46-year-old Cheektowaga resident has been playing nearly every other Wednesday at Roswell Park since.
He's one of about 135 volunteer musicians that play music in the cancer center's lobby. Many, like Casinelli, are drawn by a connection to Roswell.
"Some people are motivated by the loss of someone who meant a lot to them, others by gratitude, and a few who just have a talent they want to share to make someone's day better," said Chris Wesley, Roswell Park's volunteer services administrator.
For Casinelli, playing at Roswell has been a new calling. His illness forced him to give up his longtime career as a barbecue chef. Outside his Roswell gig, he performs with The Cradle, his three-piece band, and paints houses with a friend.
"I have found tremendous solace being able to be here and play for others," said Casinelli, who is originally from Rochester.
Doctors, he said, warned him that his life-threatening cancer could easily have robbed him of his ability to play music, his ultimate passion. He got lucky, and he's been playing his solo gig at Roswell Park ever since.
"Hey, how's it going, man?" Casinelli softly called out to a patient between verses on a weekday this summer. He leaned ever so slightly into his guitar and gently rocked while playing Ray Charles.
"I've had people ask me to come to their rooms," he said. "I have had the privilege of playing for so many people. I've come here on Christmas Day by myself, and have gone room-to-room and played for families."
It started with a bump resembling a cyst above his right eye. Casinelli had been told not to worry about it unless its appearance changed. It later began turning colors. A biopsy revealed it was a rare form of cancer, dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans. "It burrows into you and seeks out soft tissue. It got into the bone. It was moving toward my eye, a soft tissue organ," he said. "It has all sorts of roots that come off of it."
Casinelli spoke openly about beating something that could have had a much worse outcome than the physical scars he bears beneath his skull cap.
"It had gone down in and got into the outer layer of my skull and was starting to head toward my brain," Casinelli recalled.
Music has been a constant, helping him focus and find good in the not-so-good.
At 6, he saw John Denver in concert and fell in love with the idea of performing. At 12, he began lessons at House of Guitars in Rochester. By 16, Casinelli had formed his first band. "I've been playing ever since," Casinelli said.
When he came to Roswell for his treatment, he noticed musicians playing in the lobby. That got him thinking.
"Being a musician, it was a wonderful way for me to shut off all the things that were going on in my head," he recalled. "I could just listen to these guys play, and I would go over and talk to them. And everyone here is really kind. This is one place where you can absolutely feel God's grace working."
He asked nurses how he could perform in the lobby. He played some Van Morrison songs, an Allman Brothers piece and some Eagles for the required audition. He threw in some Delta Blues, too, and slide guitar. And he was in.
Performing at Roswell became therapeutic not only for others, but also himself.
"When you're confronted with that, it's kind of like a constant battering of your soul. And it's difficult for anybody to understand that who has not experienced that. But it's constantly there," Casinelli said. "God gives you all these different gifts and talents. He doesn't give them to you so you can keep the pie to yourself and be selfish. Rather than sit there and count the dots on the ceiling in my hospital room every day and wonder what's going to happen next, I'd rather get up and put legs on my prayers."
His interactions in the lobby have been beyond moving. "There's nothing more humbling than having a 16-year-old girl with no hair, and in a wheelchair, come over and sing 'Landslide' with you," Casinelli said.
A week later, the song was still on his mind. A young woman stood in the corner, tears streaming down her face. She approached Casinelli when he finished.
"She thanked me for playing that song. It was her Dad's favorite song," he said. "I asked her if she was OK, and she told me her Dad had just died, and she had to go up and say goodbye to him. She gave me this big hug and we talked."
It's the audience that keeps Casinelli coming back.
"The greatest feeling for me is watching somebody, especially the kids," Casinelli said. "They give you a big hug and they thank you for making their day."
Story topics: Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus