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97-Year-Old Credits Harmonica as Key to Long Life


Stacey Blank remembers the day she first read about an innovative tool for her chronic lung patients. The Coordinator of the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Department at the Western Maryland Health System describes it as "something outside the box."

Blank's career objective was to help her patients breathe better. "You don’t realize how tough it is to live everyday and be short of breath," she says.

She became instrumental in the nationwide Harmonicas for Health Program
through the COPD Foundation (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) in conjunction with the Academy of Country Music and its Lifting Lives charitable division.

Blank met country music sensation Chris Janson, who explained how playing the harmonica calmed his asthma. Since then, medical groups have formed across country and the COPD foundation sells Harmonica for Health leader and players' kits on their website.

Jack Hopkins (2nd from left) jams with his buddies at the Virginia Harmonica Fest. (C/ Presutti/VOA)
Jack Hopkins (2nd from left) jams with his buddies at the Virginia Harmonica Fest. (C/ Presutti/VOA)

Better breathers, now vacuuming with oxygen

"One, two, three...." Stacey Blank counts the beats as her 25 pulmonary patients, appropriately named, "Better Breathers" alternately "blow" and "draw" on their harmonicas. The song, "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" emerges as a fun cacophony of pitches. The harmonica strengthens lungs as the player exhales and inhales to create notes.

Jodie Steward has been battling COPD since 2008. She joined Better Breathers two years ago and is amazed at what she’s accomplished. “I can even run my sweeper with my oxygen attached,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that.”

Jack Hopkins with his harmonica cake as he turned 97 years old at the Virginia Harmonica Fest. (C/ Presutti/VOA)
Jack Hopkins with his harmonica cake as he turned 97 years old at the Virginia Harmonica Fest. (C/ Presutti/VOA)

91 years of playing

Jack Hopkins doesn't have a pulmonary condition, but he played his harmonica in the hospital last year while recovering from a heart attack. Hopkins — who is quick to laugh or to run up a flight of steps — turned 97 at the Virginia Harmonicafest in late April.

The group saluted him with a “Happy Birthday” song on their harmonicas and a cake shaped like a silver harmonica. Hopkins responded by playing “This Old Man” on his instrument. “Got to watch out for us old guys on the harmonica!” he chuckles.

He says his harmonica kept him breathing all those years. He doesn’t smoke. “I do a lot of drinking.” He pauses for effect. “… water,” he adds with another of his signature chuckles.

Santa brought Hopkins his first harmonica in his Christmas stocking when he was six years old. Within two weeks he was playing complete songs and convinced his dad to buy him a chromatic harmonica – one with sharps and flats.

Hopkins didn’t take formal lessons until he was 49. “Sometimes I’m playing it before I get out of bed. Usually I’m singing before I get out of bed. I love singing too!”

Physical, social, emotional benefits

Medical professionals say the instrument small enough to fit in a shirt pocket benefits the player physically and mentally. It’s been known to bring COPD patients out of depression, since the disease isolates people from normal activities.

A group like “Better Breathers” is a social venture too. "I think we laugh the whole time," says Blank. "The whole hour and a half that we are here, we’re just having a great time."

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    Carolyn Presutti

    Carolyn Presutti is an Emmy, Silver World Medal, AP Broadcaster’s Best of Show, and Clarion award-winning television correspondent who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters. She has also won numerous TV, Radio, Multimedia, and Digital awards for her TV/Web coverage of Muslim Portraits, The Syrian Medical Crisis, Haiti, The Boston Marathon Bombing, Presidential Politics, The Southern Economy, Google Glass & Other Wearables, and the 9/11 Anniversary.  Presutti was VOA’s Nathanson Scholar to the Aspen Institute and VOA’s delegate to the U.S. government’s Executive Leadership Program (ELP).

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