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Harmonicas Teach Better Breathing

Harmonicas are the secret weapon in the battle to preserve healthy lung tissue. Who knew?

The participants in John C. Lincoln's Better Breathers support group, that's who.

It all happened somewhat to the surprise of the hospital's Respiratory Services staff who organize the support group monthly meetings, which are open to patients with COPD or other respiratory ailments plus.

When the group gathers from 1:30 to 3 p.m. on the fourth Thursday at the Cowden Center on the North Mountain campus, the program provides a chance for patients to be educated and to encourage each other.

Harmonicas were a serendipitous afterthought. "Breathing is a two-part process which involves two different set of muscles," says respiratory therapist Mike Clark. "Harmonicas exercise both the ventilatory and respiratory muscles. And they're fun!"

As a result, he reports, every participant has been given a harmonica and they've become an anticipated high point of the meetings, so much so that when educational speakers on topics like dietary nutrition, medications or oxygen equipment for home care take too much time, there is disappointment, if not outright rebellion, in the ranks.

"They have learned a half dozen songs and they really like playing together," Mike says.

"Our participants are very social, and they treasure their time together," says Respiratory Services director Jet Kieffer, RRT. "They rely on each other because they really understand what they are experiencing in a way that they believe healthy people cannot, no matter how closely they are related.

"It is really important to them to get together and share their problems and their coping skills or experience with medications," Jet says.

Organizing and sponsoring Better Breathers is only a fraction of the work done by Respiratory Services staff, which like their counterparts across the country are celebrating Respiratory Care Week from Oct. 21 through 28. The majority of their work is done with hospital inpatients that need both medical care and education for them and their loved ones to deal with their lung diseases after discharge from the hospital.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding about lung disease," Mike says. "While it's true that most people with COPD were either smokers or exposed to second hand smoke, it's not true that most smokers get lung disease — and there are both genetic and other environmental causes of lung disease. So it's wrong to be critical of lung patients.

"Additionally," Mike says, "companions or family members should not become impatient with respiratory patients who need to pace themselves and move slowly due to lack of adequate oxygen. They're not lazy!

"And finally," Mike adds, "family members or friends who are educated in breathing techniques can be invaluable in helping their loved ones calm themselves when they get short of breath."

Respiratory Care Week is a good time for healthy people to think about protecting their own lungs, Jet points out. They recommend:

  • If you smoke, quit. It is never too late. Lung tissue starts healing itself no matter when you quit.
  • If someone you love smokes, don't give up. Research shows that having encouragement from others is a key factor which helps smokers become ready to quit. Virtually nobody can quit until they are personally ready, but if enough other people encourage them, it makes a difference.
  • Avoid second hand smoke.
  • Avoid respiratory infections by practicing good hygiene, especially frequent hand washing.
  • Exercise — aerobics, resistance training and stretching — all equally valuable.
  • Balance your diet. Good nutrition and more frequent small meals are both recommended.
  • Where possible, avoid or minimize exposure to environmental air pollution. Frequently cleaned or replaced filters for home and car are a good idea.

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