Arlo Guthrie played it. So did Neil Young, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Johnny Cash, Jim Belushi, Huey Lewis and Paul Butterfield. Can you guess? OK, here’s a hint: so did George “Harmonica” Smith.
Yes, it’s a harmonica. Also known as a mouth organ or French harp, this free reed wind instrument has been used worldwide in many musical genres, notably in blues, American folk music, jazz, country and rock & roll. Wouldn’t those icons be surprised that their instrument has recently been adapted and redesigned to serve a loftier cause: allowing people to breathe better! It’s called a Pulmonica, and it was developed right here in Sarasota, Florida.
Even more exciting: in 2013, an important trial of the Pulmonica’s efficacy in treating Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) was tested at the Friendship Centers’ medical clinic, an initiative led by our very own volunteer physician Dr. William Weiss, who sees many of the pulmonary patients at the clinic in his twice-weekly visits.
At age 93 and with nearly 20 years of service as a volunteer physician, Dr. Weiss was proud to travel to Chicago this past June to present, along with the husband-wife team who developed the pulmonary harmonica, a poster display at the biennial conference of the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Foundation. The abstract of their study was published in the organization’s journal for October 2015, and a big Chicago hospital was so impressed that they may conduct a similar study.
The Pulmonica is the brainchild of local residents Dana Keller, PhD, and Mary Lou Keller, MS, who blended their knowledge of musical instruments, physics and anatomy to create a pulmonary harmonica for non-musicians that exercises the diaphragm and chest muscles to promote improved breathing. In addition, the special low tuning provides noticeable vibrations that help loosen lung and sinus congestion.
Dana Keller’s connection to the Friendship Center came through a relative who played in a harmonica group here and felt his breathing was improving. Before long the Kellers were talking with Dr. Weiss about a potential study.
With the blessing of the Friendship Centers, Dr. Weiss was inspired to design an eight-week “modified pulmonary rehabilitation program” that would include the Pulmonica, and also measure other influences on pulmonary health.
The bottom line? Before and after lung function testing and quality of life assessments showed remarkably consistent results: all nine patients improved, and 91% of the pre-post test scores improved. All of the patients credited at least some of their improvement to the Pulmonica, aided by the availability of exercise programs, free medication, educational sessions and emotional support through the Friendship Center.
“A side benefit of the study was the support that the participants received from each other,” recalls Dr. Weiss, a graduate of NYU College of Medicine. “Many are still using it in their daily lives, to the amusement and sometimes distress of their canine friends.”
At the Ruben Center for Healthy Aging, Dr. Weiss continues to give out a limited supply of the instruments to patients who fit the criteria (for example, you must have quit smoking) and are motivated to make sustained improvement. “It’s easy to learn because one plays chords instead of notes, plus the patients find it soothing and fun,” he says. “In addition, it’s portable and non-invasive.” Since its initial development, the Pulmonica has been modified by its German manufacturer to provide even further exercise for the lungs, at the request of the inventors.
Born in Morristown, NJ, Dr. William Weiss’ father was a chemist who died when he was only 33. His father’s early death was a prime motivating factor in his desire to be a doctor. Through high school, college and right into medical school and an internship at Mt. Sinai Hospital, he always knew what he wanted to do and moved quickly towards his goal, becoming a doctor of internal medicine at the age of 23.
In the Army, he was introduced to the field of allergy and became head of a large allergy clinic in Fort Dix, NJ. He went on for post-graduate training in allergy, asthma and immunology.
When Dr. Weiss retired from private practice after 42 years, he became (at age 70), medical director of the New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners. After a few years he left that post, and he and his wife began to spend more time at their Longboat Key home. In 1995, he became a physician volunteer at what was then the Senior Friendship Center.
“I consider my work here not only a paying back experience for the years that I benefited from internal medicine, but an opportunity to allow me to maintain my identity as a physician,” says Dr. Weiss. “Once a physician, it is part of your life. Complete retirement can be very damaging for physicians.”
Not that Dr. William Weiss is thinking about that anytime soon.
For more information on the Pulmonica, visit pulmonica.com.