Seventy-three -year- old Carol Parsons of Apache Junction plays the harmonica twice a day, five days a week.
Her tunes include “Happy Birthday” and “Danny Boy.” She even wrote her own music for “Jesus Loves Me” to play for her grandchildren.
“I thought it would be fun to learn, and now I can play a song or two,” said Parsons, who was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease a couple years ago. “I’m learning where the holes are and may even pick up the recorder again.”
Parsons is one of six patients with lung disease participating in a harmonica study through the pulmonary rehab program at Banner Baywood Heart Hospital’s cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation department in Mesa.
The eight-week study will check the patient’s breathing muscle strength, their quality of life and their assessment of how difficult it is to play to see whether playing the harmonica helps alleviate breathing problems, said Jeff Alexander, a research and exercise specialist who helped start the study.
The results will be compared to 13 patients involved in the rehab program not playing the harmonica. “We wanted to see if it really helps and to see how effective it is,” Alexander said.
It’s thought that blowing in and out of a harmonica mimics respiratory muscle training, a therapy used to improve breathing.
The study should be completed in four to six months, as patients entered the study at various times.
If the study shows it helps, the harmonica will be added to the regular pulmonary rehab program. The program includes riding a stationary bicycle, using a treadmill, lifting light weights and educational classes.
Some patients have had positive comments about the use of the harmonica, while others find it’s too difficult to play.
Parsons has been doing the rehab since Nov. 9, and although she said it’s hard to tell if the harmonica is helping, she has noticed she is breathing more from her diaphragm. Alexander said breathing from the diaphragm is a good thing and shows she is retraining the way she breathes.
“I’m sure it must be helping,” said Parsons, who uses oxygen at night and plays softball on a senior women’s league. “I have noticed I can blow out longer than I used to.”
Linda Anway of Mesa is also playing harmonica in the study.
“At first I thought I couldn’t do it,” said Anway, 67, who has never played any musical instruments. “But I have noticed a difference. I’m not using my oxygen as much. And I kind of enjoy” playing.
During rehab at the hospital last week, Parsons suggested there might be an added benefit to the therapy.
“I want to get together with the others and possibly do a concert,” she said lightheartedly.