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Think Music Heals? Trombone Player Begs To Differ

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Think Music Heals? Trombone Player Begs To Differ

Think Music Heals? Trombone Player Begs To Differ

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Each day, students head to band practice toting their trumpets, trombones, saxophones. This next story suggests they may want to pay attention to the way they clean out those instruments.

Diane Orson, of member station WNPR, reports on a musician in Connecticut who learned the hard way about the dangers of not cleaning his horn. He developed a condition that's being called trombone player's lung.

DIANE ORSON: Scott Bean spends hours each day performing, practicing and teaching the trombone. Today, he's working with a student on "The Damnation of Faust" by Berlioz.

(Soundbite of trombone)

Mr. SCOTT BEAN (Musician): Now, can you also make the eighth notes going up -da, da, da, da, da, dom? Can you crescendo through it?

(Soundbite of trombone)

ORSON: But for years, Bean struggled with health problems that made it hard to play his instrument.

Mr. BEAN: I coughed. I had the horrible, deep, barking cough - especially when I played trombone. I had a sore throat, lost 60 pounds at a time, had a low-grade fever. It was a huge hindrance.

ORSON: Doctors thought he had asthma. But none of the usual therapies worked. After 15 years, Bean went on vacation for the first time without his trombone, and felt better. He began to wonder if the instrument could be making him sick.

A doctor at the University of Connecticut took a culture from inside his horn.

Mr. BEAN: Then he calls me up, says, Scott, we know what's in your trombone.

Dr. MARK METERSKY (Professor, University of Connecticut School of Medicine, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine): He grew a mold called fusarium.

ORSON: Dr. Mark Metersky is a professor in UConn Medical School's Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care.

Dr. METERSKY: He also grew a type of bacteria called a mycobacterium - sort of a cousin of tuberculosis.

ORSON: This stuff inside the trombone was causing an allergic reaction, which led to hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a severe inflammation of the lungs. Microscopic organisms were breaking off and getting into Bean's lungs each time he inhaled. Bean admits brass players are often lax about cleaning out their horns.

Mr. BEAN: You talk about cleaning out your instrument, and they laugh and make some funny remark about it. I never cleaned out my trombone - maybe once every other year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEAN: We never clean it out.

ORSON: Mold and bacteria could grow in any brass instrument. And for most players, it wouldn't matter much, except maybe aesthetically. But for a subset of people who react to these organisms, it's no joke.

Dr. Metersky set out to see how common a problem it was. He asked several professional musicians if he could culture the insides of their trombones and trumpets for a pilot study.

Dr. METERSKY: Things plopped out. It was disgusting. Imagine the worst thing you found in your refrigerator, in food that you've left for a few months, and that was coming out of these instruments.

ORSON: Metersky stopped testing after 10 instruments because they were all contaminated. His findings are published in this month's issue of the pulmonary journal Chest. There's also a separate case report on hypersensitivity pneumonitis from a contaminated saxophone. Doctors have known about this disease for a while but Dr. Cecile Rose, an HP expert at National Jewish Health in Colorado, says no one's ever thought to connect it to musical instruments.

Dr. CECILE ROSE (Director, National Jewish Health): I think it probably hasn't been figured out because doctors don't ask the right questions, and because this disease has symptoms that are identical to symptoms of more common diseases.

ORSON: Now, Bean is diligent about cleaning out his trombone.

Mr. BEAN: I use a rod with a cloth and use alcohol - rubbing alcohol or isopropyl alcohol - pour it down and - cleans out the germs.

(Soundbite of trombone)

ORSON: And he finds playing his horn a lot easier.

For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in New Haven.

(Soundbite of trombone)

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