You might think lullabies to be the preserve of the under-eights but these singing along to these comforting compositions are more than just child’s play. The English National Opera (ENO) has been using lullabies to help treat patients in England suffering the debilitating effects of long Covid, and the results have so impressed healthcare providers around the UK, and internationally, they are queueing up to get involved.
A partnership between London’s Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust and the ENO was forged last year when Baylis, the opera company’s learning and participation department, suggested long-Covid patients might benefit from learning breathing and relaxation techniques employed by professional singers via Zoom.
The ENO Breathe concept was born, using lullabies as a starting point.
“A lot of exercises are easy to reach for in moments of panic unlike some more traditional exercises taught in clinical settings,” says Jenny Mollica, director of Baylis.
“Patients have talked about waking up in the night gasping for air and being able to draw on techniques to manage their breathing.”
The six-week pilot study was small, with only 12 participants, but the results were striking: 90 per cent of participants reported an improvement in their breathlessness and 91 per cent felt their levels of anxiety had dropped.
Sheeba 43, was admitted to hospital with pneumonia 10 days after developing coronavirus symptoms on 15 March 2020. Four days later she was discharged.
“I thought I’d come home and within three weeks I would be fine but three months later I was still struggling with my breathing and fatigue,” Sheeba says. Her GP suggested exercise, but Sheeba could barely get out of bed.
She did some research and discovered that Imperial was looking for people to take part a study. At first she was unsure about ENO Breathe.
“I thought, ‘I have no experience and this is the English National Opera’. I didn’t think I’d fit,” Sheeba says.
She decided to give it a shot anyway – and was bowled over by the effect: “I just fell in love with it.”
The techniques she learnt at the online sessions had an immediate effect.
“The week we had our first session, one night I felt I was drowning, anxiety was overwhelming me. I employed techniques [I’d been taught] and immediately calmed down,” Sheeba says.
One of her favourite exercises involves exhaling through a straw into a glass of water: “You literally blow bubbles into water like a child. It allows your vocal chords to stretch but with minimal impact.”
To her surprise, Sheeba, whose first language is Kashmiri, enjoyed the singing element of the course, It helped that they began with very simple songs.
Bantu lullaby “Abiyoyo”, in which the single word is repeated throughout, was a favourite.
“It was so clever for them to start with something with just one word. It doesn’t matter whether English is your language.”
Following the success of the pilot, the course was rolled out in clinics around London, Manchester, Newcastle, and Cheshire and Merseyside.
Sheeba’s course ended months ago but she continues to feel the benefits, not just of the exercise but also the support network of her ENO Breathe cohort.
“I feel like I’ll be part of the group forever,” she says. “There are days I’m feeling low and I’ll send a message and five people will comfort me. It has been my lifeline.”