Refreshing waters embrace medically fragile children

Legs weakened by neuromuscular disorders feel the water’s support, and sometimes even emerge to later take their first, extraordinary steps.
“Freedom of movement.” This is what springs first to Karen Nagao’s mind when the occupational therapist describes how aquatic therapy can benefit young residents of the Center for Medically Fragile Children at Providence Child Center.

"A lot of times one of my goals is to get them to create a splash, whether it’s a kick or just a splash with their hands, because that’s initiating movement,” Nagao says. “If you think of how we explore the world, it’s that freedom of being able to use our bodies and then getting information back from that.

"Water supports the children. It has buoyancy. The pressure of water helps calm our bodies. It gives us that womb-like, safe feeling, and when we move our bodies within it, we get all that sensory information back."

For the kids, aquatic therapy can relax tight muscles, increase range of motion, decrease spasms, improve circulation, and build strength and endurance.

"It’s exciting, too,” Nagao says. “They’re splashing, they’re kicking, they’re having a good time."

The excitement of aquatic therapy recently took another form. Twenty-year-old Garrett, born with severe cerebral palsy, had managed his first, halting steps in the pool. Then, with gait-training therapy and a special walker, he took his first steps on land, heading down a Providence Child Center hallway.

"You could just see the sparkle in his eyes,” Nagao recalls, “and the sparkle in the staff, too."

Every Thursday evening, kids are out of their wheelchairs and into the 94-degree water of the Providence therapy pool at the Portland Easter Seals facility. Therapy sessions last for six weeks. Youngsters also enjoy healing benefits of the child center Jacuzzi and the Providence Portland Medical Center indoor swimming pool.

The aquatic therapy program is buoyed by philanthropic support for Providence Children's Health Foundation. On Saturday, Aug. 27, some dedicated athletes are swimming great lengths down the Columbia River in the Team Gaffney Swim & Cruise for the Kids fundraiser so that more children can be immersed in the life-enhancing therapy.