Allison Perry

Piano Prodigy Performs for NICU Pediatrician during Special Reunion

Published: Jun 13, 2014


Video by Allison Perry, UK Public Relations and Marketing


LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 13, 2014) -- Classical music streaming through the UK Chandler Hospital drew awe-inspired patients, visitors and hospital workers to a Yamaha piano in the Pavilion A lobby.


With his fingers sputtering across the black and white keys, the young performer soothed the hospital atmosphere with the melodies of Mozart and familiar tunes from the musical Phantom of the Opera. The 18-year-old has never had a piano lesson in his life. And, without sheet music as a guide, he relies on memorization to play complex pieces of composition.  


Self-taught pianist Kennedy Wickers returned to Kentucky Children's Hospital May 29 to give a special reunion performance for the doctor who cared for him in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). When Kennedy was born 26 weeks premature in October of 1995, he was given a 50 percent chance of survival. He suffered from severe bleeding in his brain and other complications at birth, including a heart condition called patent ductus arteriosus (PDA). Because of the high-grade bleeding in his brain, UK pediatrician Dr. Nirmala Desai told Kennedy's family that he might never walk, talk or develop normally.


After a lunch hour performance in Pavilion A, mother Heather Wickers, grandmother Rachelle Chattin and now 6-foot-tall Kennedy, reunited with Desai. Heather Wickers, who wiped away tears after embracing Desai, recalled the moment the UK pediatrician entered her hospital room 18 years ago. She said Desai held her hand while she explained Kennedy's condition.


"(Dr. Desai) came in and told me he had the bleeds in his brain - a Grade 4 and Grade 3 - and I thought that meant he was going to be a vegetable," Wickers said. "And then she came up and grabbed my hand, and told me not to worry about it - that time was going to tell. I remember her calming me down."


After two months in the NICU, baby Kennedy went home to Frankfort with his family. A few weeks later, Kennedy endured another health scare when he was diagnosed with a life-threatening respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection. He was sent back to the pediatric intensive care unit at UK for a second time. Heather Wickers remembers receiving a visit from a hospital chaplain during her second trip to UK. She said it was a miracle her son survived.


"There was a chapel lady who came in and prayed - and then in less than a week, he was going home," Wickers said. "I guess the prayer worked. I didn't know much about prayer, but I started liking it after that."


Moved to tears by Kennedy's soulful performance in Pavilion A, Desai said watching Kennedy play the piano was a gratifying experience that brought more meaning to her work in the NICU. While she couldn't have predicted that a baby born into the world with severe brain bleeding would develop a remarkable musical talent, she always hopes for the best outcome for her patients. She was also impressed with how tall Kennedy had grown - babies who have a complicated neonatal course often experience stunted growth.


"I am glad I didn't have a crystal ball, because I would have been wrong," Desai said of Kennedy. "It's sort of a validation of what you do. The way his music touched my heart gave me goose bumps."


Desai credits an involved family for providing a supportive home environment that gave Kennedy the best chances for cognitive and physical development. Kennedy's brain bleeds as a baby put him at high risk for cerebral palsy. Kennedy was diagnosed with the pediatric brain disorder colpocephaly at the age of 16, and although he struggles with academics, the condition hasn't interfered with his musical pursuits.


Heather Wickers said Kennedy's first exposure to classical music must have occurred in his first few hours of life - in an incubator at the neonatal intensive care unit at Kentucky Children's Hospital. At the time Kennedy was born, nurses played classical music in the NICU to help relax the babies.


From the time he could walk, Kennedy was dabbling in music and dancing to the rhythm of the dryer. He started playing with a small keyboard that he received as a gift when he was 10 years old. At age 15, Kennedy stunned his entire family by performing a song by pop band Coldplay during a home school talent show.


"I've always been drawn to it, and I can't help it," Kennedy said of music. "It's like food."

With no formal training, Kennedy has relied on the Internet and YouTube to teach himself how to play the keyboard. In addition to learning classical piano, Kennedy has taught himself to sing opera and popular musical numbers. An enthusiastic fan of the Mozart's temperate style and lesser known composers like Ysaÿe, Kennedy said he dreams of one day playing piano in a traveling orchestra. He also wants to learn how to play the violin. Kennedy graduated from his home school high school program on May 30.


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