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Meet the B.C. harmonica players for whom music is the breath of life

Tracee Gallant is the co-ordinator of the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program with Interior Health in Kamloops, which uses harmonicas to help patients with COPD.  (Milk and Honey Photography - image credit)
Tracee Gallant is the co-ordinator of the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program with Interior Health in Kamloops, which uses harmonicas to help patients with COPD. (Milk and Honey Photography - image credit)

At 76, Sharon Lyons never envisioned that treatment for a disease which affects her ability to breathe would involve learning to play the harmonica.

"I thought this was pretty crazy, to be honest," she said about being part of Interior Health's Harmonicas for Health (and Happiness) program.

It was launched this year by respiratory therapists in Kamloops after they learned about the program, which was created in the U.S. by the COPD Foundation.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease causes obstructed airflow from the lungs and has no cure. Treatment can help slow its progression and manage symptoms.

Playing the harmonica exercises the muscles that help pull air in and push air out of the lungs and strengthens abdominal muscles for a more effective cough.

LISTEN | The CBC's Jenifer Norwell spoke with participants of Interior Health's Harmonica for Health (and Happiness) program:

The people who run the program say it also is a stress reliever, develops self-confidence and allows patients to socialize with others.

"It's hilarious to be playing the harmonica at our age, which it is. It's fun," said Lyons.

There is no requirement to know how to play and read music for the program, which is one hour a week for five weeks. A harmonica and instruction booklet are supplied.

'The smiles, the brightness'

Still, Tracee Gallant, a respiratory therapist in Kamloops, who helps co-ordinate the program, says she was unsure at first what the reception would be to the virtual classes.

Her worries were quickly allayed.

"We just saw the smiles, the brightness in these clients connecting with us. What a fun way to do it," she said.

Jacqueline Turvey, a respiratory therapist and primary and community care program co-ordinator who established the program and runs it with Gallant, says it improves COPD patients' ability to breathe and clear their lungs.

It also helps COPD patients deal with the uncertainty of the disease. COPD isn't that heavy diagnosis, and there is a place for joy and fun in making yourself feel better."

Silly songs

Terry Shewchuk, 74, was diagnosed with COPD after he was coughing regularly while working repairing radio microwave equipment.

He smoked for about 13 years in the 1970s, he said, but believes using chemicals over the course of his working career contributed to his lung condition.

When he heard about the Harmonicas for Health program, he was eager to join as his father played the harmonica during the Second World War while deployed on a naval ship.

"I always wanted to learn to play, so it was a good starting point," he said, adding that On Top of Old Smokey was his favourite song that his father played.

In addition to learning how to play songs on the harmonica like Taps and Kumbaya, Shewchuk says the program has helped with his lungs.

Interior Health
Interior Health

He also says the program is a unique way of doing therapy and having fun at the same time.

"Participating in the Harmonicas for Health is a lot more fun than just going and exercising or going to physiotherapy and doing exercise after exercise," he said. "You get to try to learn something and laugh and enjoy each other's company while we are trying to help out our breathing."

Gallant and Turvey have offered the program three times so far this year and created a monthly alumni class for people who wanted to continue to gather and play. Participants often dress up or wear goofy hats to increase the fun of the sessions.

"We definitely laugh. We connect," said Gallant. "My cheeks always hurt at the end of class."

Interior Health says the program is the first in Canada. Gallant and Turvey hope other health authorities across Canada will copy it.