For military veterans who return from war with wounds and injuries, it?s tough to be all they can be. From spinal injuries to amputations, many are left disabled, scared and hopeless. But more and more are flocking to their local veterans? association swimming pools to help them forget the pain and begin the healing process.
?Once they get in ? they don?t want to get out,? said Mary Wykle, Ph.D., founder of MW Associates in Burke, Va.
In fact, soldiers of all stripes are using aquatic therapy to heal and strengthen themselves, and many veterans? associations are turning their swimming pools into aquatic therapy centers.
?It?s in high demand,? said Sandra Wollerton, therapeutic recreation assistant at the VA North Texas Healthcare System in Dallas. ?I?m waterlogged. I treat anywhere from 75 to 100 a day.? Her center even has a waiting list.
Wollerton is one of many aquatic therapists taking veteran patients into the 92-degree pools to move, exercise and, in some cases, learn to swim again.
The patients range in age from recent veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to older ones from Korea and Vietnam. As a result, their needs vary from patient to patient, and every one of them is referred by a physician.
For example, the therapists at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., work with a large number of amputees, Wykle said. ?They can do so much more that?s in balance in the water. They do a lot of range of motion, balance, strength training and cardiovascular in the water.?
Amputees don?t start therapy until their injuries have been treated and they?re in good condition. Wollerton teaches many to swim again, even trains them for the upcoming National Veterans Wheelchair Games in July. Her therapy programs usually run for six weeks, with two 45-minute sessions each week.
On the other hand, physical therapist supervisor Curtis Ivins works mostly with older veterans who suffer from chronic conditions, such as spinal complaints and arthritis.
?It?s a very comfortable environment, low-stress on their spine or joints,? said the supervisor of physical and occupational therapy at the VA Salt Lake City Health Care Center.
Many of his patients come in approximately two or three times a week for anywhere from two weeks to a year, he said. They learn the exercises on their own, then take them back to practice in their own community pools.
Wollerton also works with a growing number of older veterans, who are fighting obesity and diabetes. By putting them in the water and teaching them to walk and move again, they are losing weight and increasing their strength and range of motion, she said.
The water not only soothes joints, but also eases their minds, she added. Some patients have a fear of water either from a near-drowning experience or because they never learned to swim. But after six weeks, she said, ?they beg me not to discharge them.?
Sometimes a soldier requires a few tries before he?ll get in the water, Wykle said. No one is ever forced to enter, but some require the help of at least two therapists before they gain balance and control.
But as the army emphasizes, it?s the team effort that makes the therapy so rewarding.
?They?re in a group environment with peers some younger ones, but also vets from Vietnam, which is another era [that has] so many similarities,? Wollerton said. ?They can help each other.?
Ivins agreed: ?There?s a strong social component and good friendships within those groups. It?s very healthy and a good part of our treatment.?