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Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Volunteer pianist Dennis Merrill and Kay Clayton, coordinator for volunteer musicians at Huntsman Cancer Institute, are pictured in the lobby of the hospital in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 9, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — Cancer made Kay Clayton an orphan way too early.

Her father, Bruce Stonely, died from lung cancer when he was 48 and she was 20; her mother, Vicki Stonely, died from breast cancer when she was 62 and Kay was 34. By that point she’d also lost her uncle Larry, two of her grandparents and her husband’s father to cancer.

Her reaction to all this loss? Bitterness? Withdrawal? Vengeance?

No. Just the opposite. Not long after her mother’s death, Kay made her way to the Huntsman Cancer Institute with just one question:

“Anything I can do to help?”

Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Volunteer pianist Dennis Merrill and Kay Clayton, coordinator for volunteer musicians at Huntsman Cancer Institute, are pictured in the lobby of the hospital in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 9, 2019.

She first volunteered in the infusion area, pushing a snack cart around and talking to people receiving chemotherapy and other treatments. During her rounds it came up that she played the violin, so they asked her to bring it along.

Her violin playing proved to be a big hit. Not just with the patients and their families, but with the Huntsman administration. They had recently started a music program and asked Kay if she’d help get it organized by scheduling musicians to perform in the lobby.

At first, it was just her and a couple of piano players playing an hour at a time three times a month. But word spread, and soon enough Kay found herself surrounded by people who also wanted to answer cancer with the soothing power of music.

They were kindred spirits, she discovered; their stories are variations of hers. Some had lost loved ones to cancer, some were cancer survivors, others were friends and relatives of cancer survivors, some played before or after getting treatment, some just wanted to do something nice for someone else.

The roster of musicians grew to a dozen, then to a couple dozen, all entirely by word of mouth. Most play the baby grand piano that sits in the Huntsman lobby, but there are also cellists, harpists, violinists, guitarists, soloists, choirs, a bluegrass band, a native flute player and an accordion player.

In six years, the program has grown to the point that there is music at the Huntsman virtually every day, and often multiple times a day — all according to the schedule Kay keeps on a spreadsheet on her laptop.

Kay is impressed that one, people show up when they say they’re going to show up, and two, that the turnover rate is so low.

“Every now and then you have someone drop out because of a job change or school ending,” she says. “But for the most part people keep coming back. They are extremely dedicated.”

Steve Griffin, Deseret News
Kay Clayton, coordinator for volunteer musicians at Huntsman Cancer Institute, listens as volunteer pianist Dennis Merrill plays in the lobby of the hospital in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 9, 2019.

The music, from Kay’s point of view, is a reflection of the empathy that permeates the halls of the Huntsman.

“There’s an unmistakable spirit that’s there,” she says. “That lobby is just beautiful and it’s open to the three floors above and there’s just a unique feeling that says they really, really care. I think that was the vision Jon Huntsman had. It’s very warm and intimate.

“Music kind of softens the depression and the pain. There’s a spiritual power to music. It’s healing in its way. It touches your soul.”

Kay is constantly getting emails from her musicians that tell her about grateful cancer patients and their families expressing their thanks. The music doesn’t make them better, but it makes them feel better.

She tells about the madrigal choir from Skyline High School performing for a cancer victim who later died. The family was so touched by the high school kids that they asked the choir to sing at the funeral.

Stories like that are unending. The volunteer musicians come to play for an hour to cheer others up and they get cheered up.

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“Seeing people come up and perform on their own time, and not to get paid, but because they’re wanting to do something good, I love being part of that, I love being responsible for that,” says Kay. “It’s very rewarding. I never intend giving it up. I’ll do it forever if I can.”

Above everything else, she knows that by giving back and throwing some light against a dark disease she’s paying tribute to her mother and father. Her parents can’t be there; but they’re the reason she’s there.