Pools of Healing: Therapy for disabled kids gets boost from aquatics

'It's been amazing,' says mom of 4-year-old

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Four-year-old Kayla Thelen splashed in the water Thursday at the Longbranch Hotel pool. A speech therapist and physical therapist stood on either side of her, giving her tasks to try and words to say.

Kayla has cerebral palsy, a disease that makes moving and speaking difficult. The water helps with her breath and improves her stability, which allows her to communicate better, said Amanda Starr, her speech therapist.

Starr is one of three pediatric therapists with UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital Witwer Children’s Therapy Center who works with children in the water.

Aquatics therapy helps those with certain disabilities improve strength, mobility and function. The individual therapy sessions take place in the pool over an 8- to 10-week period, helping about 15 children each session.

Therapists use the properties of water — buoyancy, resistance, and weight reduction — to work with the children on tasks and activities that might not be possible on land.

“It has been amazing,” said Nicole Thelen, Kayla’s mother. “She’s worked on her core muscles, and we’ve noticed that she’s learned stability and is able to talk more.”

Kayla is able to focus more on what’s she’s saying, Nicole Thelen said, increasing the number of words she’s able to string together from two to four. Sometimes she can speak in complete sentences.

“She’s answering questions, and can tell me what she needs,” she said.

Children who benefit from aquatic therapy include those with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, weakness, juvenile arthritis, spinal bifida, speech delays, autism, sensory processing disorder, and coordination dysfunction, in addition to children who have undergone surgery.

Children are first evaluated in the clinic where therapists can then decide if the pool would be an appropriate environment for treatment.

“There are big benefits,” said Sarah Bengtson, a physical therapist who also works with Kayla. “Research shows the things learned in aquatic therapy can carry over to land.”

The therapy treatment is not new — Witwer began offering it in 2009 — but it has grown. Therapists have added more sessions, work with more children and offer new disciplines, including speech, occupation and physical.

Bengtson said that the therapists used to have only one or two 10-week sessions but now they’re in the pool with kids about 48 weeks a year.

“The pool is a very powerful place,” she said.

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