Music is Medicine for Kids With Asthma

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For the one-in-ten children nationally who struggle with asthma, breathing can be uncommonly difficult. It can even be a matter of life or death. The asthma rates are closer to one-in-three in poor communities where deteriorating housing stock and inconsistent heating in the winter make the problem worse. At the Beth Israel Medical Center, medications are just part of the treatment for young asthma patients. There's an innovative program that offers music as a complementary part of therapy.

Reporter Pamela Renner visited a music therapist and her young patient to listen in to the sounds of healing.

REPORTER: When music therapist Mechelle Chestnut came to work on a recent Wednesday, she learned that an eight-year-old girl had been admitted to the intensive care unit during the night with a serious asthma attack. Mechelle loaded up her music cart with all kinds of exotic instruments and cruised into action.

MECHELLE: Did Tyease get any sleep last night?

ANTHONY: Little bit, I could say the longest she slept at a time was maybe forty minutes or so and then she would wake up.

REPORTER: Tyease's step-father, Anthony stood near her bed. Tyease herself could barely speak; she was still inhaling oxygen. Her little sister Shana sat on the edge of her bed-stroking her covers-like a miniature nurse. The family seemed composed, as if they had been through it all before. And they have-their oldest son Kareem-also has asthma.

ANTHONY: Yeah, I was here most of the night, I got in maybe 2:30 or so but I'm still here- I couldn't leave her. She was in a whole lotta pain last night, she was wheezing, she was saying her stomach was burning. She couldn't keep nothing down.

REPORTER: By this point, Tyease's fever was starting to stabilize. She'd even eaten a little something, and when Mechelle asked her if she wanted to try playing music, Tyease agreed.

MECHELLE: We have the kavassa and we have a guerro. I also have this wand....

REPORTER: Mechelle played a soothing melody on the metallophone, while Tyease drew a picture of the instrument underneath a blue sky with a broad, dark cloud looming overhead. After the session was over, Mechelle explained that she was using a music therapy technique called entrainment:

In entrainment, we use the musical pulse or tempo-how fast or slow the beat is. So I set up my pulse based on her breathing rate, and then I gradually slowed down my musical pulse in an attempt to help slow her breathing down, which it did.

REPORTER: The working hypothesis is that listening to music affects the body, even the involuntary muscles in the heart and lungs. It's an idea that's still being tested.

EMERE: We don't necessarily get rid of asthma, but we definitely have tools to control the disease, so it's not a disability for them-

REPORTER: Dr Umit Emere, the head of pediatric pulmonology here, has helped design a study to measure the results of long-term music therapy.

EMERE: More than half of our patients are not compliant necessarily with the medication, therapies that we give them. So we were trying to figure out what else can we offer that can enhance the relationship that we have with our patients.

Six days later, Mechelle arrived for session two. Tyease looked worlds better.

REPORTER: What's the best part and the worst part of being in the hospital?

TYEASE: The worst thing is that at nighttime I have to take the oxygen and in the morning I sometimes get bad news or good news. And the good thing is I get to go in the playroom.

REPORTER: Tyease looked well enough to be discharged, but her mother, Kawana Long, knew that her breathing was still fragile-and directly impacted by her anxiety about being alone in the hospital.

KAWANA: I did see the changes, like, when we about to leave, she get emotional, and they have to put the oxygen on her because she start wheezing So I can really see that she really wants to go home; she don't like to see us leave her.

REPORTER: This afternoon, while she was still an in-patient, Tyease was eager to try music therapy again.

She found the new fingering a little difficult.

Over the long term, the asthma initiative program is trying to show that asthmatic kids who play wind instruments will benefit: they can deepen their breathing and diffuse some of the anxiety factors that contribute to asthma flares.

Then Mechelle turned the lights low and taught Tyease what she called a cleansing breath -a deep, diaphragmatic way of inhaling and exhaling

MECHELLE: You can try to gently breathe in through your nose. It might make the stuff inside your chest move around a little bit. It's OK if you need to cough. If you need a tissue or something, just let me know...

REPORTER: After the session, Mechelle told to Kawana and Tyease that the therapy could continue once Tyease was discharged.

MECHELLE: If you'd like to do that again, once you're out of the hospital, you can come to our program again.

KAWANA: OK, you and Kareem? Those are the only two that have asthma- her and her big brother. And he's sixteen. Every month he's in the hospital, so it's like really hectic. Him, and her. This is the first time she ever had to be hospitalized.

REPORTER: The family hopes that with careful medical maintenance and continuing music therapy, Tyease's asthma may not develop with the same severity.

For WNYC -I'm Pamela Renner.

The music therapy out patient program at Beth Isreal Medical Center is an ongoing study which is free and accepting families with asthmatic children. You can find links on our website at for more information.

This story was originally produced for American Public Media's Weekend America

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