James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Florida, is offering veterans the chance to make music while treating their breathing problems.  Above, two members of the class play during their first Harmonicas for Health class, a program that will be launched later this month at the Abie Abraham VA Clinic in Butler.

It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine.

But at the Butler VA Healthcare System, music may be giving it a run for its money.

On Jan. 21, the Abie Abraham VA Clinic — which serves four western Pennsylvania counties, including Lawrence — will launch Harmonicas for Health, a program aimed to help veterans with COPD or other chronic lung diseases.

The initiative joins Guitars for Vets, which the clinic offers to veterans dealing with PTSD, depression, anxiety or related issues.

Harmonicas for Health, which was established by the COPD Foundation and the Pulmonary Empowerment Program, provides an alternative to pursed-lip breathing. That procedure involves inhaling through the nose and exhaling through pursed lips, which when done regularly, helps to remove carbon dioxide from the lungs and creates more space in the lungs for bigger, fuller breaths.

“This mimics the same thing,” said Karen Dunn, the clinic’s health promotion and disease prevention program manager. “Using the harmonica has the same effect.”

The benefits, though, are multiplied.

“When you’re doing something like pursed-lip breathing or utilizing an incentive spirometer (a medical device used to help patients improve their lung function) that’s more medical, and people aren’t real gung-ho on doing that,” Dunn said. “But when you replace that with something like a harmonica that’s musical and fun, there’s the likelihood of them being more compliant and getting more than just a medical benefit.

Vets with Guitars

A veteran plays during a Guitar for Vets session at the Abie Abraham VA Clinic in Butler.

“A lot of these veterans aren’t going out and about because they have trouble breathing with exertion or they have to lug their oxygen around. This is going to be getting them out of the isolation they’re putting themselves in. It’s going to improve their quality of life. They’re going to meet new people, make some friends — veterans who are in the same boat as them who have chronic lung disease — and they’ll learn how to play this.”

No musical experience is required, and harmonicas are provided free to veterans. There’s no need for a doctor’s order, either. The only qualification is that participants are veterans who have COPD or other chronic lung disease.

Dunn is aware of only one other VA facility that is doing Harmonicas for Health, and that is the one in Florida to which she reached out for insight.

Army veteran Don Gilbreath, who was diagnosed with COPD 12 years ago, is a participant in the Harmonicas for Health program at James. A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa. In an article by hospital public affairs specialist Ed Drohan posted at www.blogs.va.gov, Gilbreath said that the class has given him more endurance.

“I won’t do the pursed lips exercises at home,” he said. “All I do is just sit there, breathe in, breathe out. But with the harmonica, you’re actually achieving something and hopefully getting pleasant sounds out of it.

“You’re getting the reward for the effort you put in, and that’s the one thing I really like about it. Even after class, I’ll take it home and practice because I see an improvement in my breathing.”

Giving veterans a skill that enables them to do self-management at home is not only the aim of Harmonicas for Health, but also the direction in which VA healthcare is moving as a whole, Dunn noted.

“It’s kind of a push where we’re looking at the big picture,” she said. “So we’re not looking at, ‘OK, you have COPD, you have diabetes, you have whatever it is. It’s the big picture because we know that one disease probably affects multiple aspects of your life.

“It’s an exciting time to be in healthcare, because it’s changing. I think what it’s going to look like in 10 years isn’t, ‘Hey, here’s another pill,’ it’s going to be completely different. It’s going to be all these complementary and integrative approaches that we’re trying to integrate now — yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, not just traditional medicine.”

One other thing Dunn foresees is lots of good harmonica music.

“Since this is new,” she said, “I’m not sure the amount of time that they would be in the beginning group, but I would think that we would venture into ‘Oh, we’re finished, you guys can do jam sessions’ and we’ll have a big group together where they can come and just do it as fun.”


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