Harmonicas for Health (and Happiness)
This post was written by Kristen Willard, M.S.
Michelle Collins, BSRT, RRT is a respiratory therapist who has been in healthcare for almost 26 years; 13 of those have been spent working in respiratory care. A woman wearing many hats, she has also been the COPD Foundation Advocacy Captain in Maine for the past two years. She’s passionate about improving the lives of the patients in Maine with whom she works. You can hear it in her voice and as she talks about her efforts to make life easier for those with COPD, no matter how far in Maine they might be from her front door.
According to the 2010 census, more than 60 percent of Maine is considered rural. Individuals with chronic illness, including those with COPD, face unique challenges that others with easier access to care may not. Independent of location, the weather presents obstacles for many residents; Maine is one of only five states that registers five feet or more of snow each year. Walking to the mailbox, driving to the grocery store or attending doctors’ appointments or pulmonary rehabilitation, tasks that many of us take for granted, are challenging to Michelle and her neighbors for many months of each year. The darkness, frigid air and duration of the winter are also a challenge for so many COPD patients who also live with depression and anxiety.
Michelle knew there was a need for a program that could help to lift spirits and provide a forum for education and community support. As part of her work as a COPDF Advocacy Captain, Michelle came across the Harmonicas for Health program, the first nationwide harmonica program created especially for individuals with COPD and other chronic lung issues. Michelle recognized that the benefits were many; these groups provide participants with community involvement, instruction on controlling their breathing, exercise, support from others who understand what their friends are experiencing … and laughter!
She seized the opportunity. Michelle publicized her developing Harmonicas for Health program through health fairs, where she took sign-up sheets to gather interested names. She engaged with management at a senior housing facility and found that both the staff and the residents were thrilled about becoming involved. She also worked with four (four!) Better Breather groups in her area to let them know about the program and to grow her ever-expanding circle. Michelle also promoted it at the 2016 Breathe Strong and Step Forward against COPD Conference Rally held this summer in Wiscasset, Maine. With the assistance of respiratory therapist, Maureen Smith, she now runs three groups with almost 40 total members of varying ages.
Participants start by learning when to breathe in and breathe out through numbers and arrows on their pages. After they’ve mastered these steps, they move to reading notes and music. Each new lesson provides them with a sense of accomplishment as they move closer to performing full songs as a group. One of the great things about the learning curve? All of the harmonicas are in the same key, so there isn’t any of the “squawking or squeaking” many of us remember from our junior high band days; even when someone plays an incorrect note, they’re still in tune.
The benefits to participants extend well beyond mastering notes on the page. Michelle says that as classes progress, participants can play for longer without taking a breath; she notices that their postures improve and that they aren’t gasping for air or having to stop as frequently as they might have before. One woman told Michelle she saw a significant improvement in her husband’s outlook and morale following his enrollment in her H4H group. The changes in his attitude were so striking that the woman donated two harmonica kits so that others could experience similar benefits.
As you might expect, Michelle has big goals for her H4H groups. Her Maine harmonica players will be practicing at home this winter and ready to go when the group convenes in the spring. Next, Michelle would like to see H4H available to all within 75 miles of her home, including both children and adults with asthma. Eventually, she would like to take the program statewide, making the benefits available to all in the state she holds so dear. Seeing all she has accomplished so far in Maine, we know she could be the one to do it.
To bring Harmonicas for Health to your organization, see our H4H page.