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For these former COVID patients, the road to recovery has a catchy beat

Therapists at a Lynbrook rehabilitation center say they

Therapists at a Lynbrook rehabilitation center say they have been helping COVID-19 "long haulers" with new treatments using harmonicas, drums and other instruments to help rebuild function in their heart and lungs.  Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware

The sweet sounds of harmonicas, drums and rhythmic clapping coming from the courtyard of Lynbrook Restorative Therapy & Nursing could have been mistaken for a performance designed to entertain its patients.

Instead, most of the musicians were patients, and last week they were playing their way through a unique physical therapy session.

Some clutched harmonicas, others held drumsticks — every breath and beat designed to strengthen their weakened cardiovascular systems.

Several of the patients were COVID-19 "long-haulers," like Cornelia Mason of Valley Stream, looking to regain the lung function they lost while battling the coronavirus. She is one of many recovered COVID-19 patients who have new or recurring health problems months after they were first infected, a group often called long-haulers.

"I love it," Mason, 77, said of her harmonica therapy. "It’s nice to play and listen to music."

While health experts are still learning about the long-term effects of COVID-19, rehabilitation centers are looking for new ways to help patients who survived their bout with the disease but still face a lengthy recovery process.

"People are more ill coming out of the hospital with chronic and acute pulmonary issues," said Lisa Penziner, a registered nurse and special projects manager at Paragon Management, which operates the Lynbrook facility and several others on Long Island. "If a patient doesn’t want to do therapy, it’s tough. It’s grueling. But when you make it fun, they don’t even realize what they are doing."

The cardiopulmonary program, featuring drumming and harmonicas, is now being used at six of Paragon’s facilities, including ones in Woodbury, Glen Cove, Middle Island and Center Moriches.

"We had a lot of patients coming to us post-COVID with pneumonia and other symptoms," said Adam Schwartz, director of cardiopulmonary rehabilitation at the Lynbrook facility. "They all come in literally on their last breath with COVID."

"They might be looking at you in their hospital bed and be fine, but when they try to get up or start to talk, their oxygen drops," he said. "They are fatigued. They are sleeping all day. It’s our job to get them back on their feet."

Schwartz said rehabilitation exercises focus on core strengthening and accessory breathing muscles such as the diaphragm. Therapists also work with patients to increase aerobic and endurance training.

"Maybe we start with a song that’s three minutes and then after a few sessions work up to a song that is five or six minutes," he said. "Bringing these post-COVID patients together who are dealing with similar conditions and symptoms makes them work more. ... It also makes them recover more quickly."

Members of the Long Island Harmonica Club come to the facilities regularly to work with Schwartz and the patients. Having patients blow air into the instrument helps improve breathing and lung capacity.

Drew Davis of Lynbrook, a member of the group, said playing harmonica helped him manage his own chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD — a suggestion made by his pulmonologist years ago.

"He encouraged me to keep playing because it forces you to use your lungs more," said Davis, 65. "The more I did it, the better I was able to breathe and use less medicine."

Adding drums to the mix provides another entertaining way for patients to work on their poor stamina and weakened core muscles.

The "drums" used by patients are actually large, inflated therapy balls balanced on top of large buckets.

"Being able to move around the ball allows them to use different muscles," said Chris Raeihle, who directs the pulmonary program at Oasis Rehabilitation and Nursing in Center Moriches.

Raeihle said he has been drumming since he was 12 and runs the sessions with patients.

"We can adjust the tempo of the music and change the movements," he said. "We’ve seen great progress in motivating the patients and improving their cardiovascular health."

During the session last week, patients clicked the drumsticks over their heads and then used them to keep a beat on the therapy ball/drum.

Patient Carolyn Hrbek, who needs to work on strengthening her left arm and its range of motion due to an injury, said drumming is more interesting than repetitive exercises in a gym.

"It’s more fun; it stirs the blood," said Hrbek, 79, from Queens. "You aren’t doing the ‘One, two, three.’ After a while that doesn’t stir the blood.

"There are other people enjoying it with you and that’s a big difference," she added.