By Allison Freehling
Most days of her life, Makayla Jaques has what feels like a doctor’s appointment, whether she’s going to see her physical, occupational or speech therapist.
Makayla’s workouts on Wednesday mornings are no easier on her body, but the 5-year-old stroke patient doesn’t know that. To her, that’s when she gets to go swimming.
“Let’s see how much you can splash!” cried Amanda DeLizzio, one of Makayla’s therapists at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters. The Poquoson girl giggled as DeLizzio grabbed for one of eight rubber ducks floating in the hospital’s new aquatic therapy pool in Newport News. “Come on, slam that little ducky down!” DeLizzio said.
The pool – complete with a built-in treadmill, jet streams and underwater cameras to record patients’ progress – opened earlier this month at CHKD’s medical center in Oyster Point. The long list of potential patients include children with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, arthritis and brain or spinal cord injuries, as well as kids recovering from sports injuries or trying to lose weight.
Aquatic therapy, an expanding area of pediatric rehabilitation, has many advantages for children, said DeLizzio, an occupational therapist. Patients with balance problems or weakened limbs can move without fear of falling. Their bodies also feel lighter because water lessens the effects of gravity. In the pool, kids can build endurance, range of motion and coordination by swimming against a current, kicking, walking, splashing and picking up and throwing floating toys. Even floating on their backs can tone trunk muscles and improve balance.
And last but definitely not least, they have fun.
“They think they’re just playing,” DeLizzio said, “but they’re actually doing many different strengthening exercises. It’s usually easy to get them to work.”
The pool is roughly 8-by-13 feet, with an adjustable floor that can drop to a depth of 6 feet with the touch of a waterproof remote control. The water is always warm – 94 degrees – and a rubberized treadmill belt doubles as the floor. For children who need it, there’s a specially designed water wheelchair.
The enclosed pool area, built for $900000, is filled with such toys-turned-therapy-tools as a miniature basketball goal and big Lego blocks. Children usually swim for 45 minutes at a time as part of larger rehabilitation programs. Some go into the water weekly; others use the pool only occasionally or as a reward for hard work in the gym.
The change of pace is especially important for kids who have been in rehabilitation for years. Makayla Jaques suffered a stroke at birth that damaged the left side of her body. She has worked with therapists since age 1, when doctors finally diagnosed the physical delays that had worried her parents.
Makayla has come a long way in those four years. As a baby, her left arm and hand dangled uselessly at her side. She never crawled and didn’t walk until she was 2 years old. Today, she still walks with a slight limp, stumbles frequently and has trouble gripping objects in her left hand.
Progress has come through exhausting and often tedious work, said her mother, Ann-Marie Jaques. In Makayla’s land-based therapy programs, she might have to flip over a long line of small objects to practice her fine motor skills or climb up and down stairs to build muscle strength.
“People don’t realize how hard it can be,” Jaques said. “Anything that can make the work more fun or interesting is good, and she loves being in a pool – any pool.”
Agreed Andrea Breckner, a physical therapy supervisor with CHKD: “With kids, one of the problems is that they might not understand the long-term reasons that you’re putting them through these exhausting exercises. Being in the pool is something they want to do.”
CHKD has offered aquatic therapy before but never had its own pool. In the past, children went to a regular pool at a community center in Norfolk. The new program has 21 children enrolled to date – the youngest just 18 months old – and several therapists have gone through training courses.
Local families are hopeful the pool will have a big impact. After watching Makayla squirt a water gun, arrange rubber ducks in a circle and toss several balls with her weaker hand during a session last week, Ann-Marie Jaques was all smiles.
“This one is a tenacious, stubborn little girl,” she said, wrapping her daughter in a towel. “This just another thing that’s going to help her keep getting stronger.” ”
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