Musician Larry Rawdon’s motto is “music is oxygen for the soul.” He proves that statement to other lung transplant patients at Mayo Clinic Florida, teaching them to play the harmonica, both for fun and to improve their lung functions.
Music has been Rawdon’s life since he first picked up a cello in elementary school in Ponca City, Okla. He later played cello on the streets of New York City, in orchestras, in television commercials, touring the country, and in more than 5,000 Broadway performances of “Cats” and dozens of other musicals.
And he knows a lot about lung transplants and what it takes to recover from one. He had his first single transplant in 2005, and then underwent a double transplant in March 2008 after his body rejected the first organ.
Rawdon cites a list of “coincidences” which enabled him to get a lung transplant, turned him on to the harmonica and brought him to Jacksonville and Mayo Clinic.
Shortly before his second lung transplant, his wife, Katie, bought him two harmonicas for Christmas, after hearing that playing the instrument was good for pulmonary medicine patients. He quickly trained himself on the instrument, learning to play Christmas carols and folk songs.
The night before he was wheeled into the operating room for his second transplant, he spent time playing his harmonica and listening to Brahms’s “String Sextet in B-Flat” and the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” on his iPod.
“It was very relaxing to me,” said Rawdon, who quickly returned to his harmonica after the surgery.
“It was really, really, helpful for me,” Rawdon, 64, said.
As part of his recovery therapy, he blew into an instrument called an incentive spirometer. He determined his lung capacity scores were much higher on the spirometer after he’d played his harmonica for 10 minutes.
“I saw the difference of recovering from lung transplant with and without the harmonica,” he said.
Rawdon shared his findings with Cesar Keller, who heads Mayo’s Transplantation Services Department. Keller believes playing the harmonica has value for lung transplant patients. He has even tried the exercises that Rawdon demonstrates to other transplant patients at sessions of the Jacksonville Heart-Lung Transplant Support Group, which meets weekly at Mayo.
“It combines excellent respiratory therapy coupled with the fun and immediate feedback that you get by playing a musical instrument,” Keller said.
“We talked about it. He showed me his techniques. If done the way he does it, the series of exercises provides maximum use of the respiratory muscles.”
Keller said the use of the harmonica should not be considered as the proper treatment, but can be used with other respiratory therapy.
All transplant recipients have weakened diaphragms and breathing muscles and may have waited weeks or months for a donor, Keller said.
There are no formal studies on combining the use of the harmonica and therapy, but Keller said if it inspires enthusiasm in a patient, it’s good thing. He has heard of using wind instruments to help treat children with respiratory conditions such as asthma.
“The one thing that is a fact with all these patients is that any therapy is better than no therapy,” Keller said.
In late July, Rawdon repeated a harmonica class that he’d conducted in February to the other 35 patients in the support group.
“I am not crazy enough to teach a group of non-musicians how to play a musical instrument,” Rawdon said, and so far none has shown a great deal of musical prowess.
He starts with an exercise called “high speed chugging,” which involves blowing in and out through a harmonica to mimic the sound of a railroad locomotive.
“It is an easy thing to make pleasant-sounding chords,” he said. “It’s more fun than the spirometer.”
Leo Faherty, 68, of Orange Park, who had a double-lung transplant in December 2010, said the class he took in February has had a lasting impact on his life and he continues to play his harmonica.
“I never play any tunes, but it has improved by numbers,” he said, explaining that the readings of his lung function during his six-month checkup improved due to his daily use of the harmonica.
“It has helped me to feel better and I can do more,” Faherty said, adding that he just took a 5,000-mile driving trip to Arizona and back.
Chrys Yates, program coordinator of Mayo’s Center for Humanities in Medicine, worked with Rawdon to make the class happen and hopes to see many more.
“He’s a very personable and remarkable individual,” said Yates, who moved to Mayo about a year ago from The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens.
Patients and their caregivers really enjoyed Rawdon’s harmonica lessons, according to Yates, and each of them was given a harmonica donated by Hohner, the well-known harmonica manufacturer.
“Mayo has a longstanding history of valuing the arts and humanities and their restorative effect,” Yates said. She noted the hospital offers sessions on painting and arts and crafts and stages several concerts each year.
She quoted one of the Mayo founders, William J. Mayo, who once said, “There is a spiritual as well as a material aspect to the care of sick people.”
Rawdon was first diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in 2002, and given little chance of his condition improving.
The lung disease left him wheezing and short of breath. A chance meeting, at a 2005 music festival at Stetson University in Deland, with cardiothoracic surgeon Octavio E. Pajaro changed his outlook and his future. After Rawdon struggled to breathe while talking with him, the doctor asked him about his diagnosis.
Rawdon said the physician asked him if he had ever considered a lung transplant. Rawdon replied that he didn’t think the odds were in his favor.
“He said I was in the final stages of the disease, and if I didn’t get a transplant, I would be dead in six months,” Rawdon recalled.
After talking with his doctor in New York, he decided to have the transplant surgery.
Pajaro performed the transplant, and things went well for about two years. Then rejection set in, and Rawdon was again added to the transplant list.
The new lungs were transplanted on March 13, 2008. Rawdon had moved to Jacksonville a month earlier to be closer to Mayo.
About a year later, Rawdon returned to Mayo, but this time with his cello, playing a noontime concert with the Ritz Chamber Players.
Before hitting Broadway, Rawdon and some other friends would hit the streets of New York City, performing on street corners.
In addition to “Cats,” he has played the cello in “Annie,” “Evita,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Annie Get Your Gun.”
He said he played cello in the Richard Harris production of “Camelot” and toured with Glen Campbell, performing the music of fellow Oklahoman Jimmy Webb. In addition, he makes musical string instruments on the side.
At first, Rawdon thought the string of coincidences that propelled him to a career in The Big Apple and then brought him to Florida and to the Mayo Clinic were just lucky accidents.
“I don’t believe in accidents anymore.”