Swim Time for Disabled Patients Becomes an Uplifting Experience

By Random Acts
Sunday, May 31, 2009

For those of you who read Page Three regularly, the usually comical contributions from Adele Levine are familiar. Humor might be her release, with a challenging job as physical therapist to amputees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. If that alone doesn't make Adele a special person, read this:

When you lose a leg, or two, it is hard to exercise. You gain a belly and sometimes a lot more. Especially at Walter Reed where, thanks to an outpouring of goodwill, we are surrounded by boxes and boxes of homemade chocolate chip cookies.

My swim team practices at the D.C. Parks and Recreation pool at Fourth and Van Buren streets, and one day, during a rare lull in patient care (five minutes), I called and asked the pool manager if it would be okay if we brought some of the patients to go for a swim.

I thought he'd say no or, at the very least, charge us. But he said that would be fine and that it would be free.

So the next week, we borrowed a van from Disabled Sports USA and drove five guys to the pool.

I'm no swim coach and have no idea how to teach anyone to swim. But I'm a physical therapist, which, in the patients' eyes, puts me on the same level as Genghis Khan. So when I suggested everyone get out of their wheelchairs and into the pool, no one argued with me. It was shallow, only four feet deep, so if you had a leg you didn't necessarily have to be able to swim. But for the others, the ones who had no legs at all, my only strategy was for them to cling to the wall and venture across the pool in any way they saw fit.

We learned some surprising things. Like, it is impossible for a person who is missing both legs to sink. We learned you can do back flips off the side of the pool using just your arms to spring you into the air. And we learned that even if you are missing both legs and an arm, you can turn out to be one of the best swimmers in the program.

I figured people would gradually lose enthusiasm for the pool program. But the next week we brought the van around, there were nine people, and then 11.

We are a motley crew at the pool, and I am sure our time there is limited. In addition to their obvious battle injuries, most of the patients have big, semi-offensive tattoos. They are loud and boisterous and leave their prosthetic legs and arms around the pool deck. They splash and dunk each other under the water and generally create inappropriate pool chaos.

But no one has ever gotten mad at us. Instead, a strange thing has started to happen: People swim with us. They get out of their lane and enthusiastically hop in ours. "Man!" They will say, swimming up to the nearest patient. "You are doing a good job, man. You keep on swimming! You can do this!"

One day, we got to the recreation center and the elevator was broken. I thought that some of the patients could bump down the stairs on their behinds -- but it's two flights. And then would they have enough energy to lift themselves back up the stairs later?

We were going to leave when the pool manager and two of the lifeguards came upstairs and wordlessly began carrying our most injured guys down the stairs.


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