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.
even improve the lives of patients suffering from a
deadly lung disease.
"What I've noticed already," said Rebecca Sutter, an
outpatient in the
pulmonary rehabilitation center at
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."
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."
There is good reason for the fear. According to the
National Heart, Lung
and Blood Institute at the
National Institutes of
COPD is the third leading cause of death in the
study published by the American Lung Association in
2010, reported 39,433 cases of the disease in Travis
"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
"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."
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,
Strait, are no strangers to the world of musical
instruments. In 1963, they founded
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
"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
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."
Doctors, too, are thrilled.
"I think the enthusiasm is they want their patients
to have a place to go," said Kitty Collins, manager of
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."
None of this would have happened were it not for the
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."
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
"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?"
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.