The Current23:26How the English National Opera is helping long COVID patients breathe a little easier

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Joanna Herman is finding solace through the power of lullabies.

She has been struggling with the effects of long COVID since she contracted it nearly three years ago, but she joined a program that is making a difference.

The English National Opera in London teamed up with experts from Imperial College London to create The Breathe Programme, which uses singing and breathing techniques to help people with long COVID.

"[It was] an hour of sort of pure joy and fun, and extraordinary exercises that really [were] so beneficial in so many ways," said Herman, who was able to perform her favourite lullaby at one of the U.K.'s most famous theatres last month.

"Having that bit of joy and fun burst on to your screens for an hour a week has been really important and really uplifting and energizing." 

A recent study in The Lancet says it's showing promising results, as participants are reporting a better quality of life and reduced breathlessness.

The ongoing program lasts six weeks, with six one-hour classes online. Suzi Zumpe, creative director of The Breathe Programme, says there are no tests at the end. People learn breathing exercises and sing.

"We perhaps approach things as musicians in a different way than a medic or a physician would. So what's been exciting has been working together with a multi-disciplinary team of people with lots of different expertise and exploring what we might offer together," said Zumpe. 

The power of the lullaby

Zumpe says that when you breathe to sing, you're not thinking about the breath; instead, it happens naturally.

"When you breathe to sing, you breathe in a way that is emotionally connected with the music that you're about to engage with. And when that happens, you're not focused on the minutia of different bits of physiology," said Zumpe. 

Participants aren't belting out lyrics from today's top hits. Zumpe says they very specifically focus on lullabies. 

"Wherever you drop down in the world, people would know what a lullaby is and what it's for. And in fact, if you were to travel back in time, the same is true. They are just in the very fabric of our humanity," she said. 

LISTEN | Hear one of the lullabies that's helping long-COVID sufferer

The tunes are often simple to sing, even for people who aren't professional singers. And, Zumpe added, there's an emotional power to singing a lullaby. 

"Everything that we want to do around this program is connected to calming and soothing, in terms of what's happening with people's breath. And that's what's happening here, really."

A suspended life

Herman says she didn't know what she was getting into when she signed up to participate in the program. At first, it just felt good to be part of a group that shared her experience living with long COVID, and understood what she was going through.

She says it's been both a physical and emotional roller coaster. While it varies day to day, she can struggle to do everyday tasks, and hasn't been able to return to work as a consultant in infectious diseases. She also has to limit her social engagements. 

"I still really feel life is very much suspended. But at the same time, when I look back and think what I could manage, say, a year ago or even a few months ago, I'm making steady progress. But it's painstakingly slow," said Herman. 

She credits that progress in part to the program. What she thought would be weekly sessions of breathing exercises and some singing ended up being much more than that.

Despite finishing her program with the opera, Herman still talks regularly with members of her group.

A woman posing for a portrait.
Joanna Herman has been struggling with the varying day-to-day impact of long COVID, but she says The Breathe Program has helped. (Submitted by the English National Opera. )

"[I've] been part of a group who have really a silent understanding of each other's illness. We don't need to explain ourselves. We don't need to excuse ourselves," she said.

Recently, Herman and the other participants travelled to the London Coliseum, got on stage overlooking a theatre of empty seats, and performed the South African lullaby Abiyoyo, made famous by Pete Seeger. 

"Oh, it was magical. It was exhilarating," she said.

"We had people came in wheelchairs, some were struggling to walk, some were struggling to breathe. But it was that sense of community. It was just the realization of something that was really, really, really wonderful."

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