Meet the chorister who has trouble breathing

Lady smiling to friend with breathing tubes
Sweet tunes: singing is a very effective exercise for improving lung function as well as lifting the spirit Credit: T0DD Westphal

At 28 Cynthia Davies had half a lung removed. Although she's always had trouble breathing she defied odds and went on to do something quite extraordinary.

Cynthia Davies grew up in the Welsh mining town of Ammanford, Carmarthenshire, and as a child suffered badly from asthma. “Then when I was in my early 20s I developed a lung condition called bronchiectasis, which is a chronic condition of scarring of the airways, making them susceptible to infections. At 28 it led to me having half my lung removed in Oxford.”

Although her health initially stabilised, enabling a move to New York – where she has lived for 30 years, working as a ceramic artist and teacher at the Town School – it later began to deteriorate. Her breathing suffered and she was taught to begin each day by clearing her scarred lungs of excess mucus to avoid infections. Despite her precautions, often a bout of pneumonia would require steroid medication and hospitalisation.

In the winter of 2015, her health declined further. Medical tests revealed her lungs were only functioning at 30 per cent. “I was weak and tired because my muscles had atrophied, but only realised how weak I actually was when I started to get better,” says Ms Davies.

She was told she would need oxygen to help her breathe and the equipment was immediately delivered to her apartment.

Making music: Cynthia Davies can now enjoy singing again Credit: T0DD Westphal

“I remember at first feeling trapped by this 50ft length of tube connected to the oxygen machine that kept me tethered to it. I was also given a portable oxygen machine, but it was very bulky and I felt self-conscious and embarrassed going out with it.”

But Ms Davies knew she could not hide away for ever. She began taking her portable device to school so her pupils became used to seeing her with the machine and breathing tube in her nose.  

Then a friend told her a casting company was looking for people like her. Ms Davies discovered that the health technology company Philips was putting together a choir entirely of people with breathing difficulties.

A choirmaster would be training them to sing at the Apollo Theater, the celebrated music venue. Within a few weeks, she had successfully auditioned to be part of the Breathless Choir.

Each of its 18 members was given a Philips SimplyGo Mini portable oxygen concentrator. They wore the device during rehearsals in a Harlem church basement as well as when they sung together on stage.

“I found it easy to use my SimplyGo Mini straightaway,” says Ms Davies. “It was less clunky than my old portable device. Everything was lighter, including the extra slide-in battery, which meant I could use the device for up to eight hours with one battery change.

The Welsh have a strong tradition of choir singing and I can do that now

“I was also fortunate to be selected for a unique pulmonary rehabilitation gym programme at NYU Langone Medical Center. The SimplyGo Mini gave me so much more freedom to exercise and to become stronger and more functional.

“I wear it like a small backpack and just take it with me as I would my purse, phone and keys. I’m out and about a lot – I walk, travel, cycle four miles and go to the gym as well as commute to full-time work. Ceramics is very physical and often means lifting 25lb of wet clay. My SimplyGo Mini just comes with me. My pupils refer to it as my ‘hard drive’.”

And how did it feel to sing on stage at the Apollo Theater? “I was aware of all those famous names that had been on that stage in the past,” she says. “Here I was from a small town in south Wales in this amazing venue, singing away when I didn’t really have that much breath.

“But I think in many ways it was more emotional for those watching.” Ms Davies’ partner William was in the audience along with other family and friends. “They were seeing the empowerment of it and some were understandably very emotional.”

Ms Davies has continued to sing, even beyond the Breathless Choir.

“The Welsh have a strong tradition of choir singing and I can do that now. With SimplyGo Mini my voice is stronger and I can join in once more. Singing and deep breathing is a very effective exercise for improving lung function as well as lifting the spirit. There’s a Welsh chapel here in New York and I go there sometimes and sing,” she says. “In the past I might have sung there if there were lots of others in the congregation and my voice wouldn’t be noticed.  

“Using the SimplyGo Mini, I can enjoy singing again. Singing together always reminds me of being a child in the Welsh choirs back in my old home town.”

Find out more about the SimplyGo Mini and other Philips breathing aids at