'Take A Breath Singers' find COPD choir helps them do just that

A choir of local COPD sufferers is rehearsing a version of the Everly Brothers' song "Dream" that one of its members changed to "Breathe" and infused with reminders of the tools they can use to breathe better.

Choir spun out of COPD support group at the North Hamilton Health Care Centre

Mike Oshanek spoke after choir practice the other day with the weary tone of a misunderstood artist. 

Oshanek has one hit already under his belt, and he's written another song he hopes will take off. But he's having a little trouble getting it by the ensemble, a group of about 15 sufferers of a lung disease called COPD.

"There's a word in there that they're not too comfortable with," he said. "Maybe I can find another word, but it's — uh, it's — 'coughing up the sputum from my lungs.'"

The other singers giggled. If Oshanek found the lyric comical, he barely let on. He plans to set the mucus melody to the tune of 'Winter Wonderland.'

"It's something that we do daily," he said. "So, like I said, once I can get the other people on board, I'm pretty sure that we could make it part of our repertoire."

The 'sputum' ditty would join the group's breakout hit, a version of the Everly Brothers' song "Dream" that Oshanek changed to "Breathe" and infused with reminders of the tools the COPD-sufferers can use to breathe better. Like "pursed-lip breathing," where patients practice exhaling like they're blowing out birthday candles. 

Breathe / pursed-lip breathe 
Breathe / pursed-lip breathe
Living with COPD / Doesn't mean the end of me
Whenever I'm struggling all I have to do / is breathe

'People often come here without hope'

The choir spun out of a class at the North Hamilton Community Health Centre called "Caring for my COPD," led by a team of a social worker, an occupational therapist, a kinesiologist and a registered nurse. Patients with COPD, often seniors, feel breathless and find it difficult to breathe deeply to expel the stale air from their lungs.

"It's a progressive and a persistent disease," said Cathyann Hoyle, the registered nurse who coordinates the program. "People often come here without hope. They don't think there's much of a future for them."

The team prescribes exercises in the centre gym to help improve patients' ability to walk and climb stairs. There's no cure, but there are some medications that can help alongside the therapy.

The choir was a natural progression as the team hopes to address the "spiritual health" of the patients. Social worker Sib Pryce saw an internet video of a COPD choir in England about a year ago, and brought the "wild" idea to the centre.

It was a hit.

"It gives people a lot of hope," Pryce said. 

'Don't worry, breathe happy'

The Hamilton choir debuted at the COPD group's open house in December. Oshanek said seeing the English choir singing "Don't worry, breathe happy" inspired him.

COPD was just four letters to me. All I knew was that it really made me suffer.- Mike Oshanek, member of the 'Caring for my COPD' group at NHCHC

"These people are struggling the same way I am, and yet they can sing a whole song," he remembers thinking. 

Oshanek's diagnosis "shocked" him. 

"I was very scared. And the fact that I knew there was something wrong. I couldn't go a certain distance without having to stop and get my breath and everything," he said. "COPD was just four letters to me. I really didn't want to know too much more, all I knew was that it really made me suffer."

But the group, and the choir, helped on two levels: The social one, and a practical one. 

"The whole idea of the singing is to breathe from your stomach, practice diaphragmatic breathing," he said. "We all have a good time. You can't be shy in this group; if there's something you're struggling with, you just ask."

The choir is featured on a "breathing" themed episode of CBC Radio's Definitely Not The Opera airing on May 2. You can listen to the story above.

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