The first song Juan Perez played for the doctors and nurses at Tacoma General Hospital was “Unforgettable.”
It was eight days after the 65-year-old’s open heart surgery and the longest the former Tacoma Mall Nordstrom pianist had gone without playing the piano in nearly 30 years.
“I was happy,” he said. “I didn’t have any problems, except I made a few mistakes.”
Perez, who earned a local following during his decades at Nordstrom and at various other venues through the South Sound, first knew something was wrong in June. He couldn’t make it up a hill on his daily four-mile run in University Place and decided it was time to see a doctor, he said.
“A month ago, he was playing basketball with his 10 kids. He’s our star player,” said daughter Christine McKanna, who works as a critical care nurse. “So it was shocking that he couldn’t walk two blocks (back home).”
At first, physicians thought he might have a clot in his abdomen, but a CAT scan showed a tumor the size of a small French baguette on his heart.
A couple days before his scheduled surgery, Perez gathered the family around its piano and played “What a Wonderful World,” she said as tears welled in her eyes.
It took nine hours and four surgeons to remove 95 percent of the malignant tumor from his heart, McKanna said. Just 24 hours later, Perez asked to go for a walk.
On Tuesday, Perez said he’s feeling great and is eager to start work again Friday.
He performed at the Nordstrom in Tacoma for 27 years until he was laid off in 2013 because the store wanted to take a more modern approach by playing recorded music. He continues to play at weddings and other venues including El Gaucho in Tacoma.
Some pianists haul around piles of sheet music for their performances, but Perez carries each note in his head. He said he’s never been able to read more than a few lines of music and has more than 700 songs memorized that he learned by ear.
“There are so many stories,” he grinned while reminiscing about all the places he’s performed. “Some come up to me and say I smiled at them when they were five years old.”
One woman sent him a letter last year, just a week before he was terminated from Nordstrom saying he’d inspired her to be an artist and now she was living in Paris, he said.
“I’m just happy to be an inspiration,” he said. “Even though I’m not the best piano player.”
Joshua Magana, the life enrichment director at the Weatherly Inn assisted living facility, said he’s never met anyone quite like Perez. He has been playing at the facility once a week for more than 10 years.
Magana said residents started making cards when they learned about Perez’s surgery, and Weatherly staff sent a giant fruit basket to the hospital.
“He’s part of the family,” he said. “(Perez) is definitely special to us.”
McKanna said she has never met anyone who works as hard as her dad does.
In his spare hours, Perez volunteers at church functions. Even when the family was struggling with financial hardships, he allowed homeless members of their Catholic church to live in their home, she said.
While recovering in the hospital, Perez sought to care for needs of the people around him by asking the nurses if they’d had time to eat their own dinner, she said.
“He’s been a father for so long that he still wants to care for everyone else,” McKanna said.
Perez went home from the hospital Tuesday. McKanna said the doctors are unsure how aggressive the cancer is and are holding a conference July 30 to determine a course of treatment.
Perez, however, isn’t going to let anything slow him down.
When McKanna asked if they would still run a half-marathon next year, Perez responded: “I’d love to.”