In The Swim: Kennedy Krieger's new Aquatic Therapy Center gives a spinal cord injury patient mobility and hope

January 21, 2010
Kennedy Krieger’s new Aquatic Therapy Center gives a spinal cord injury patient mobility and hope.
Aquatic Therapy at Kennedy Krieger

It's the dead of winter, but college junior Darin Ruark is spending much of his winter break afloat in a sparkling, penthouse-level pool. The air is warm and the sun shines through floor-to-ceiling windows. But while it may sound like a relaxed get-away, Darin isn't enjoying a winter vacation with friends or family. Instead he's swimming at the Kennedy Krieger Institute as part of an innovative aquatic therapy program.

During twice-yearly intensive therapy visits to the Institute's Outpatient Center, Darin, 21, works out for several weeks at the new Mr. and Mrs. Arthur B. Modell Aquatic Therapy Program, which opened its doors last spring. Darin is paralyzed below the neck, and aquatherapy at the Institute is crucial in his fight to regain mobility. "At Kennedy Krieger, I found a place where there's hope for the future," he says. "It's not just about living with an injury, it's about overcoming it."

Refusing to Take "No" for an Answer

Four years ago, Darin was a dedicated high school soccer player who hoped to play in college. Then, one summer night, mere hours before an interview with a coach at Clemson University, his college of choice, Darin and a friend got into a car accident while driving home from a concert. The vehicle rolled several times. When it came to a stop, Darin tried to get out, but he couldn't lift his hand to the door. He was immediately transported to Baltimore's Shock Trauma Center, and then to a rehabilitation facility.

Doctors had little hope he would recover the use of his limbs, so therapists set about teaching him to live with his disability. Because that wasn't enough for Darin, he and his family turned to the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

"At 17 I didn't want to hear This is your wheelchair. We'll teach you how to use it. This is your life now,'" says Darin. "The people at Kennedy Krieger aren't like that. They teach you to live with your disability, but they never stop looking for ways to help you regain as much mobility as you can."

Escaping the Limitations of Gravity

One of the methods therapists at the Institute suggested was aquatic therapy. "Since I've started aquatic therapy I've seen the most progress since the accident," Darin says. "Being in the pool is like freedom. I don't have to worry about falling. It's easier to move. It's an ideal environment for retraining."

The Aquatic Therapy Program was specifically designed to help patients with traumatic injuries escape the limitations of gravity and, as much as possible, their disabilities. The center's two state-of-the-art pools feature adjustable hand rails, resistance jets for massage and athletic conditioning, and underwater cameras allowing therapists to watch a patient's limbs moving beneath the water. The floor of the facility's smaller therapy pool can function as a submerged treadmill, and both feature vertically adjustable floors, which can be raised and lowered to control the water's depth and allow patients easier access with ground-level entry.

"Whatever method our patients use for mobility, such as a wheelchair or walker, we can get them right onto the pool surface and then lowered into the water," says Christy Sachs, the Institute's adapted aquatics manager.

The aquatic program's versatility makes it a great resource not only for spinal cord patients, but also for those who have conditions such as muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, brain injuries, and autism.

"Water is a great therapy tool," Sachs explains. "It's assistive, meaning it helps our limbs to float, so moving them is easier. But it's also resistive, which helps patients become stronger in the water because they are moving through something. Many patients are able to do more in the water than they can do on land."

A Winning Attitude

"In a way, I'm very lucky," says Darin. "People come from all over the country and the world to be cared for at Kennedy Krieger, but it's right in my backyard."

Back home on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Darin is participating in daily physical therapy while carrying a full course load as a political science/philosophy major at Salisbury University. Thanks to the care he's received at Kennedy Krieger, he has regained the use of both arms, which enables him to maneuver a manual wheelchair. Equipped with leg braces, Darin can walk short distances in his home. He plans to attend law school after his graduation next year.

"My love for sports is out of this world, so I want to go into sports law," Darin says. "But I also know first-hand what people with disabilities face. Combining my personal experience with a law degree could help a lot of people."

In the meantime, Darin stays focused on his studies and his therapy. In January, the day after returning from Kennedy Krieger, Darin took an important next step in gaining greater mobility and much desired independence by passing his driving test, making him a young man who is truly on the move.

Learn more about the aquatic therapy clinic at Kennedy Krieger.

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