Some VA hospitals in Florida are teaching veterans how to play the harmonica to improve their breathing. It’s part of a national program that takes an unconventional approach to treating lung disease.
On a recent afternoon, a dozen or so veterans sat around a table at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa chatting and prepping their small silver harmonicas for a class. Instructor Dave Folds started the session by inviting volunteers to show off what they practiced since the class began a month before.
One student, José Cintron, offered to give “Mary Had a Little Lamb” a shot.
“Chase that lamb!,” shouted one of his classmates encouragingly, as Cintron played the simple tune without any mistakes. The room erupted in applause.
“I’ve been practicing this one since Day One!” he said proudly.
Besides military service, participants in this class all share one thing in common: they have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. The condition is commonly caused by smoking or exposure to pollution.
Breathing is tough for them. They may wheeze and feel dizzy when they're active or constantly cough up phlegm. Some may have to visit the hospital regularly.
This class, part of the COPD Foundation's program Harmonicas For Health, teaches them techniques to strengthen the muscles around their lungs and improve their breathing.
Folds, their instructor, is the Health Promotion-Disease Prevention Program Coordinator for James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital. He said the small holes of a harmonica require players to breathe with pursed lips, similar to blowing through a straw. This mimics a common exercise doctors recommend for patients with COPD.
“We do that with an instrument that makes noises and makes music, and they feel the accomplishment,” Folds said. “And I can't tell you how many tell me they'll sit at home and play the harmonica but they will not sit at home and purse lip breathe for fifteen minutes."
Every week, Folds asks classmates to go around the room and share if the experience is helping them.
Marine Corps. Veteran Yoel Alvarez G, 68, said he’s already noticed a difference from playing the harmonica. Since developing COPD, breathing in has always been his biggest challenge. He said he struggled with the instrument early on, especially for songs that required a lot of intakes, which would force him to stop playing as he gasped for air.
“I’d have to slow down and take my breath again and start all over,” he said. “Now I have it under control.”
Olaf Olson, 77, said he has been able to clear the phlegm out of his lungs more easily and has more stamina when he bikes around town. The former military police officer said he takes his harmonica with him everywhere he goes, even if he doesn't have time for a tune.
“I’ll sit down some place that’s comfortable and just make sounds, just make noises, just breathe, any type of breathing,” Olson said, before demonstrating on the harmonica. He played a quick series of notes, explaining how that exercise forces him to use his diaphragm to stay winded.
Dave Folds said when the class first started earlier this year at the Tampa VA’s Primary Care Annex, there were only three participants. Now, there have been as many as 16 in the room at once. The hospital has already expanded the program to include a class at its outpatient clinic in New Port Richey, and it’s working on adding others at more facilities.
VA health systems in Orlando and Gainesville also participate in Harmonicas for Health. The COPD Foundation, in partnership with the Academy of Country Music, provides participating organizations with harmonicas, music books and literature on COPD. Students are expected to attend the class weekly for about three months and to practice at home throughout.
The physical benefits aren’t the only things bringing veterans back to class each week. The social elements help many patients well.
During the Tampa class, Olaf Olson and Yoel Alvarez G joked with their classmates about how practicing at home sometimes gets interrupted by their pets.
"I’ve got a German Shepherd,” Alvarez said. “When I play, he gets between me and the table and he starts howling and I’m like, ‘Woa, take it easy!’” he chuckled.
“It’s the sound of the harmonica,” Olson replied, sharing a similar experience with his four cats.
José Cintron chimed in, “They want you to play better!”
“Now I know, ‘cause when you play bad, they leave,” Olson said to the room of laughing vets.
That banter is half of the benefit of the class for Alvarez.
"I like it, it's getting together with other vets, because basically I'm almost like a shut-in,” he explained. “This has gotten me to do things outside of my comfort zone. It’s fun, you know, it feels good."
The community aspect also helps motivate participants to take these exercises seriously. Olaf Olson said he likes knowing where he stands among the other players.
“You know who practiced by when they come in and do some stuff, and a lot of these guys are doing some fantastic stuff,” he said. “It’s blowing my mind, I'm like, ‘Now what am I going to do next week?’"
Although not everyone is always very successful, as was evidenced by a couple botched attempts to play “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a round as a group.
Instructor Dave Folds said it doesn't matter if they nail every song. So long as they're working on their breathing, it's a job well done.