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Malo Tones
The choir of pulmonary rehabilitation patients, known as the Malo Tones, captivated the audience with their performance and touching story at Toronto Western’s Art in the Atrium event. (Photo: UHN)

Coming from a family of musicians, Eileen Joyce Harvey has long known the power of song.

But it wasn't until she was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) in 2008 and put on a wait list for a lung transplant in 2015, that she realized the true life-altering capabilities of music.

She's not alone. A wide variety of people coping with various lung ailments have noted the same.

The human body requires and regulates a specific level of oxygen saturation in the blood. Typical oxygen levels are considered to range from 95 per cent to 100 per cent. In patients with pulmonary diseases, including IPF, blood oxygen levels are lower as a result of the increased difficulty in breathing.

"I noticed that after I sang, my saturation level went from 84 to 94," says Eileen, who is a pulmonary rehabilitation patient at Toronto Western Hospital (TW).  "That was when I realized how much my ability to breathe like a singer helped me.

"And I felt the need to share that with my fellow patients."

More than a feeling, it's actually scientific fact. Studies from the United Kingdom show numerous benefits of singing for patients with various lung diseases. One of them is an increase in blood oxygen level saturation. An increase in psychosocial well-being was also demonstrated in the research, as was an improvement in posture from using proper singing techniques.

Eileen and her husband, Bill, who recorded albums and toured their native Nova Scotia as musicians before moving to Toronto three years ago, first shared the benefits of singing at a breathing workshop with her fellow pulmonary rehabilitation patients.

Following that, the patients decided to form a vocal group in 2016 called the Malo Tones, to continue practicing their breathing techniques.

Looking back, Eileen attributes constantly singing while in Nova Scotia with helping to delay her need for a transplant.

Eileen Joyce
Eileen leads the group in song during their Art in the Atrium performance. (Photo: UHN)

"It has been such a blessing to see the growth of these wonderful people," says Meeran Manji, coordinator of the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Clinic at TW and a registered nurse.

Meeran had seen the research from the U.K. and thought a Singing to Breathe Program – vocal groups that exist across Canada who use singing to improve health – would be a great idea for patients, and she enlisted the help of Hannah You, a music therapist, to help get one started at TW.

"Singing helps them exercise and strengthen their lung muscles," says Meeran. "By utilizing their diaphragm, the patients' airways open with more ease and maximize their lung capacity."

Eileen is less scientific about the benefits. "It's fun, builds confidence, and leads to long-lasting friendships," she says.

"We'd rather sing than do sit ups," she quips. "The fun of the program has helped us heal."

The garnered confidence also helped encourage patients to step out of isolation and build fun, long-lasting friendships which reflects the positive increase in psychosocial well-being demonstrated in the UK-based studies.

"The dedication of Eileen has truly been inspiring. She has motivated everyone to continue their journeys courageously," Hannah says

Fellow peers and patients of the clinic are grateful for Eileen's contributions.

"[Eileen] is certainly an asset," says Jeannie Tom.  Along with many of her peers, Jeannie actively participates in the community by educating and advocating for the wellbeing of her fellow lung disease patients.

Since the beginning, it's their consideration and respect for one another that brought them together. Richard Malo, who passed away in 2015, was a beloved Lung Issues Support Toronto (LIST) patient at the pulmonary rehab clinic and the inspiration behind the group's name.

With the help of his family, the Malo Tones meet regularly to serenade the hallways of the Pulmonary Rehabilitation Clinic and have an open doors mandate welcoming everyone regardless of their musical experience.

"It doesn't matter if you sound bad, just don't be sad," says Eileen.

"We've become a family," she adds. "When times are hard, I'm reminded why I'm here. They do as much for me as I do for them."

Earlier last month, the Malo Tones took center stage at Art in the Atrium, a bi-monthly lunch hour performance series held at TW, where they captivated audiences with their incredible voices and lively dynamic.

For the future, Eileen wishes to move back to her home province following her treatment and envisions the Malo Tones doing outreach in the community by performing at hospitals, churches and other venues to continue sharing the healing power of music.​

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