WHEN HE WAS A PATIENT SEVEN MONTHS INTO HIS RECOVERY FROM COVID-19, Marcelo Olavarria particularly looked forward to Fridays. Other days of the week, he’d walk on an inclined treadmill to increase his lung function. But on Fridays, he could stay home and continue his therapy from the comfort of his easy chair — often with his eyes closed and a blissful smile on his face.
During those 30-minute home sessions, Olavarria, 78, learned breathing and relaxation techniques via Zoom from professional singers participating in a program offered by UCLA Health in partnership with LA Opera to help coronavirus patients recover their lung function. “It’s very interesting that we breathe every day, but we don’t have any idea what we’re doing,” Olavarria said during his first session in May. “This brings so much attention to the physical elements of it, especially if you’ve been sick. I’m still on oxygen, but it’s so wonderful to know what we have to do in order to get back to normal.”
The program, which began as a six-week pilot but has been extended at least through the end of 2021, was created after jazz vocalist Rondi Charleston learned of a breathing/ singing course developed by the English National Opera to help COVID-19 patients deal with the anxiety of breathlessness. She teamed with two teaching artists from LA Opera Connects, which oversees community engagement and education for LA Opera, to teach the sessions. In addition to providing medical oversight for patients in the program, UCLA Health also is engaged in research to assess the program’s effectiveness.
“It’s a program that we hope people will adopt all over the country,” Charleston says. “It’s been such a joy to watch these long-haul patients taking their first deep breaths, some for the first time in a year, and to witness them grow their lung capacity and get so much joy out of singing and making music together.”
The program is a welltailored complement to the therapy that patients with respiratory problems already receive, says Ellen Wilson, executive director of therapy services for UCLA Health. “The whole idea is that singers do a lot of the same breath exercises that we do in pulmonar y rehab, and then some,” she says. “It’s really meant to be an adjunct to whatever formal treatment they’re getting, and a fun way to work on lung capacity without it being so clinical.”
Each class begins with warm-up and mindfulness techniques, followed by breathing exercises with visualization. “Imagine a technique where we’re saying, ‘Close your eyes, relax your shoulders down, lean in slightly and breathe in that rose,’” says Stacy Brightman, vice president of LA Opera Connects. “It’s visualization that will help you achieve exactly what your therapist wants you to — a long, deep, calm breath.” The exercises help not only the lungs of patients recovering from coronavirus, but also “the mind and brain with the power of music and song,” says Kristin Schwab, MD (RES ’16, FEL ’20), PhD ’17, codirector of UCLA’s Post-ICU Recovering Clinic and medical director of pulmonary rehabilitation. “My patients have absolutely loved it.” At the end of the session, participants are invited to sing — although singing exper ience, or even the ability to carry a tune — is not required.
“We’re making it very, very accessible,” Charleston says. “The actual act of singing and making sound is a very basic function. This is not about making beauti ful sounds. This is just about connecting to your breath and your body, and whatever sound comes out of you is wonderful.”
For his part, Olavarria
says the classes have helped
him feel s t ronger and
al lowed him to express
himself through music. “I’m
extremely happy that UCLA
Health has taken the time
to offer this,” he says. “It’s
very encouraging for those
that are suffering from this