Aquatic therapy helps get people back on their feet
Therapist: warm water, buoyancy make the difference
Jane Benitz of North Beach has been mostly confined to a wheelchair for the past 20 years with chronic pain from a spinal injury and arthritis. Six months of aquatic physical therapy in 2015 changed all that.
“When I started, I couldn’t even stand to take a shower,” Benitz said. “I just did over 200 reps of the cross-countr y skiing in the deep end, and it feels like how I used to when I could go for a two mile walk — how it used to feel just to move freely.”
Benitz had just climbed out of the therapy pool at the Edward T. Hall Aquatic Center in Prince Frederick where physical therapist Beth Nowak was working with current and former patients, getting them on a path of healing and fitness.
“By far, this is the nicest therapy pool facility I’ve seen anywhere, and I’ve lived all over the country,” Nowak said. “Calvert’s really fortunate to have this caliber of a therapy pool.”
A specialist in aquatic therapy, Nowak has been working with patients three days a week at the pool for the last five years, most recently with Bayside Physical Therapy and Sports Rehabilitation in Prince Frederick. She said, unlike other pools she’s worked in, the therapy pool here is large enough to have different exercises going on at the same time and includes a chair lift for those with less mobility, as well as a deep and shallow end, plus something in between.
“I can actually use that to seat people in the pool where I can do mobilizations to their feet, ankles, knees, hips — whatever they need,” Nowak said of the motorized lift. “We do see several patients that are wheelchair bound that on land are non-ambulatory, due to significant weakness or lack of sensation — a lot of folks that have strokes or other neurological disorders than can’t walk on land. We can get them in the water.”
“They can do so much in here, in this environment, because of the buoyancy of the water,” she added. “Most people we see in here, to ask them to do an hour’s worth of exercise outside of the pool would really be difficult.” Two sets of parallel bars in the moderate and shallow sections help get people walking.
But it’s the water temperature that really makes the difference.
“They keep it heated to about 92 degrees [Fahrenheit], which is what they call the ‘therapeutic temperature’ that allows the muscles to relax,” she said. “It makes a huge difference.”
“I can’t swim there,” Benitz said, pointing to the regular pool which is kept about 10 degrees cooler, “I go into muscle spasms. The warm water is the key.”
Cindra Mirales had a “two-level fusion” surger y on her back in September to correct a painful problem diagnosed in 2011 and used aquatic therapy to build up strength and flexibility before and after the surger y.
“It really made a huge difference being able to strengthen everything before the surgery,” the Prince Frederick woman said. “After surgery, I’ve been doing it since October and they’re going to discharge me at the end of December. They can’t get me any stronger than what they’ve already gotten me. It’s been absolutely the most wonderful thing.”
Mirales said she planned to continue exercising in the water after her therapy is officially over. She’ll be among many others who continue at the pool after their formal therapy regimes end.
“They take their lunch break from noon to 1 [p.m.], so if you’ve been a previous client, they allow you to come in from 12 to 1 while they’re sitting on the deck taking their lunch and run through your exercises and use their equipment. I always take advantage of that,” Mirales said.
Evelyn Vazquez of Prince Frederick first broke her ankle in 1993, which led to increasing pain in walking later in life and a total ankle replacement in September. After the surgery, terrestrial physical therapy seemed to not be helping get her back on her feet, she said, so she started aquatic therapy.
“In a month and a half, I can now walk,” Vazquez said. “I was using a walker. Now I just use a cane just as a cautious kind of thing. I’m actually putting full weight on it and walking. I’m able to go up steps now.
“I spend time cooking in the kitchen now, where before I couldn’t do that,” she said. “The water therapy has been miraculous, for me, in getting that movement going — and flexibility.”
Nowak said she sees two patients per hour from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the therapy pool, setting goals and designing individual exercise programs for each.
“We try to gradually transition them to a landbased program, because not everybody lives in the water — nobody lives in the water,” Nowak said.
“It’s quite moving when you get somebody in the water that has not been able to walk for a very, very long time and they can take steps,” she added. “You just see the tears coming: they’re happy tears.”
“It gave me a way to exercise,” Benitz said, having become less dependent on her wheelchair. “I’m doing great. I’ve lost close to a 100 pounds now; I’m off a lot of medications, I’m sleeping better and have less pain.”
“I just can’t say enough what an awesome facility we have here,” Mirales said.
Beth Nowak, a physical therapist at Bayside Physical Therapy in Prince Frederick, poses in the therapy pool at the Edward T. Hall Aquatic Center.