Meet the Pulmonairs, a choir for those living with COPD and other lung diseases

 
Updated 3/18/2019 11:20 AM
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  • Chris Kazmar, left, and Gary Goldsand, both of Arlington Heights, perform St. Patrick's Day selections with the Pulmonairs in Northwest Community Hospital's Oasis cafeteria. The choir, made up of pulmonary patients, exercises their lungs through singing.

      Chris Kazmar, left, and Gary Goldsand, both of Arlington Heights, perform St. Patrick's Day selections with the Pulmonairs in Northwest Community Hospital's Oasis cafeteria. The choir, made up of pulmonary patients, exercises their lungs through singing. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • The Pulmonairs sing St. Patrick's Day selections to diners in Northwest Community Hospital's Oasis cafeteria. The choir, made up of pulmonary patients, exercises their lungs through singing.

      The Pulmonairs sing St. Patrick's Day selections to diners in Northwest Community Hospital's Oasis cafeteria. The choir, made up of pulmonary patients, exercises their lungs through singing. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Volunteer Jan Bahr of Tower Lakes directs the Pulmonairs as they sing St. Patrick's Day selections to diners in Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.

      Volunteer Jan Bahr of Tower Lakes directs the Pulmonairs as they sing St. Patrick's Day selections to diners in Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • The Pulmonairs get ready to sing at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.

      The Pulmonairs get ready to sing at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

Chris Kazmar was encouraged when doctors told her they could treat her lung cancer through surgery. But the Arlington Heights woman didn't bounce back as well as anticipated.

Although discouraged and needing oxygen full time, Kazmar dedicated herself to going to the Pulmonary Rehab Center at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights. She even joined one of their new groups: a choir made up of other pulmonary patients.

They call themselves the Pulmonairs, and their recent performance last week outside the hospital's main cafeteria, the Oasis, drew cheers from staff and visitors alike who gathered around them.

Pulmonary specialists at the hospital believe the singing group is unique in this area.

"I feel great," Kazmar said. "Between the rehab and the singing, it's just helped me so much. I feel so great that I'm going to Europe in a couple of months with my oxygen."

Kazmar was one of a few singers who had their oxygen tanks with them. Nearly all of the choir members are living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.

Jean Loiacono of Arlington Heights is a retired teacher who has been on oxygen for three years. When the choir formed a little over a year ago, she quickly joined.

"The vocal exercises are helpful," Loiacono said. "Sometimes I can't stretch for a note, but I keep on singing. I love the fun of it."

Dr. Steven Geller, a pulmonologist at Northwest Community, started the choir with Anne Gavic-Ott, manager of its cardiopulmonary rehab center. Together, they had learned of a research study in England that promoted the benefits of singing for patients with COPD.

"One of the main goals of our pulmonary rehab program is to improve the quality of life of our patients," Geller says. "The program includes education as well as exercises to help build up their endurance."

Geller points to the research that shows singing is good for the respiratory muscles, but the social benefits of the group are just as important.

"Before starting in the program, many of our patients have been very isolated and not going out of their homes because of the limitations they have with shortness of breath," he said.

Gary Goldsand of Arlington Heights is another COPD patient who signed up for the choir when it started. Although he came from a musical family, he had never been in a choir, and hoped it would help him with breath control.

"When I'm singing I can hold the notes longer," says Goldsand, who wore a kilt for last week's St. Patrick's Day-themed performance. "And my singing voice has improved."

Jan Bahr of Tower Lakes directs the choir. She taught middle school students for 35 years in Des Plaines Elementary District 62, and she also cantors at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Parish in Lake Zurich.

"We do physical warm-ups as well as breathing exercises before we start singing," Bahr says. "I look for songs that are standards and midrange, so they don't extend beyond an octave."

The Irish classic "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" tested the singers, especially with the high 'E' near the end, yet Bahr raised up her arms as if to help the singers slide into the note, and they did.

"Jan calls some of the exercises 'vocal sirens,'" says Josephine Cunningham of Palatine, "and they help. The exercises -- and the singing -- really do increase our lung capacity."

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