Harmonicas Ease COPD Blues


AUSTIN (KXAN) - The harmonica: You can carry it easily in your pocket. You can impress your friends with it. It is the only instrument you can use to produce music by breathing into it or out through it.

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And now, it can even improve the lives of patients suffering from a deadly lung disease.

The disease
"What I've noticed already," said Rebecca Sutter, an outpatient in the pulmonary rehabilitation center at Seton Medical Center ,"is that when I play, the muscles that I use to take my breath, the upper part of my lungs, can feel the relaxation.

"You feel it in your cheeks; you feel it in your lips; you feel it in the lift that you give your chest wall and I love the relaxation.

"And the more I blow and the better I don't think about it, but just do it, it becomes really a relaxing thing. Music is a lot of therapy in its own self."

Sutter has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, better known as COPD. Encompassing such conditions as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis, COPD makes breathing difficult and that, of course, can be a scary thing.

"There are times," testified Bob Galina, another Seton patient, "when I have to use a rescue inhaler to get myself breathing because my trachea and the bronchials shut down. And they actually squeeze and I feel a tremendous amount of pressure and difficulty in breathing. It's frightening."

The stats
There is good reason for the fear. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health, COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States.

 A study published by the American Lung Association in 2010, reported 39,433 cases of the disease in Travis County alone.

"My doctor told me just recently that he thought I would never leave the hospital three years ago," said fellow outpatient Irene Strait. "He recommended Seton Pulmonary Rehab.

"You come here; they teach you how to exercise; they teach you how to breathe. They work with you; they walk with you; they give you hope. They give you courage. And I'm still here.

"I'm 83-years-old," Strait smiled, "and happy to be alive. Seton pulmonary rehab saved my life. It took away my fear and it gave me hope."

The class
Then, four weeks ago, Strait got wind of a new class forming at the rehab center, a harmonica class, aimed at using the instrument to improve lung function in COPD patients and other people with chronic lung issues.

She and her husband, Dan Strait, are no strangers to the world of musical instruments. In 1963, they founded Strait Music Company, a well-known Austin music store. Now, with both of them dealing with COPD issues, they not only signed up for the class, they donated harmonicas for the students.

"The last four weeks," Irene Strait said, cradling her harp, "when I first started using this little thing, I could not breathe in three notes, couldn't do it physically. And now I can play and breathe in all those notes."

Patient after patient, reflecting on their progress at Seton, marvel at the improvement in their lives.

"Before, on the treadmill, I couldn't do two minutes walking," said patient Bill Nelson. "And it would take me hours just to shower."

"It's taken the fear away," said patient Claudia Deyton, "and that to me was the most important initial thing because when I was afraid about my breathing, it impaired my breathing further. And with the pulmonary rehab visits, my fear went away."

The harmonica added icing to the proverbial cake.

"I'm breathing a whole lot better without even trying," Deyton said, "or it feels like I'm not even trying. I'm just enjoying trying to learn the song."

"It gives us muscles in the lips, the cheeks, the bronchial system, the tongue," noted Galina. "Just everything is going to be strengthened and improved."

The docs
Doctors, too, are thrilled.

"I think the enthusiasm is they want their patients to have a place to go," said Kitty Collins, manager of the outpatient rehab center. "They want them to have improved outcomes and a better life and this all part of what's happening with this harmonica class.

"We try to teach breathing exercises in pulmonary rehab, but we don't know that it's really being done outside of the rehab unit because it's not fun to just sit there and practice breathing.

"So this was a way to do something fun and provide that same benefit.

"It's measurable; I could hear the strength in their music when they come in each week."

The volunteer
None of this would have happened were it not for the dedication of Tom Zoe, a state employee who has been learning to play harmonica for two years now. Zoe stumbled across harmonica therapy during a road trip to Michigan he made as a birthday surprise for his mom.

He encountered a harp player there who introduced him to the idea and when he got home, he just picked up the phone and started calling doctors and hospitals.

"I've been volunteering since 1988," Zoe said. "That's just the way I am: When I find something I have a passion about, I go after it."

The gig
Creating the class, though, was just the beginning. Zoe also tapped a bunch of his musician friends to play at a March 3 benefit concert at Giddy Ups in Manchaca, just south of Austin.

"I had a vision to call all these other harmonica players," Zoe recalled, "and they said, 'Yeah, we'll do it.'

"So after they said they'd get involved in it, just one thing would roll after another and it gives me pleasure to hear all these people talk about much it helps them," the volunteer said, his eyes welling with tears and his voice cracking.

The money raised from tickets to the eight-hour gig will go straight to the rehab program at the medical center.

"We're going to establish a separate fund through the Seton Fund for Pulmonary Rehabilitation," Collins said. "The idea is: Can we further support more harmonica classes. Can we also possibly use the funds to help people that aren't able to access the pulmonary rehab program because of inadequate insurance or inability to pay some of the co-pays?"

The sunshine
Back in the classroom, the ten students pick up their harmonicas and strike up a surprisingly pleasing rendition of "You Are my Sunshine."

"There's something good about learning the song, 'You Are My Sunshine,'" Sutter said, "because if you play that to yourself, enough times in one day, and then seven days in a row, just keep it up, pretty soon there won't be gray days.

"Even if the clouds are gray, you've got the sunshine coming through you.

"And you remember your sunshine and that's (how) this group helps us, it helps us to just have one another."

The patients finish their song and everyone erupts in applause. The room fills with what feels like a deep, deep breath of fresh, fresh air.