By Brian Van Bower
As you spend your days creating structures that contain and control water, it’s easy to lose sight of the water itself. Yes, we’re conscious of the fact that we have to filter, treat and sometimes heat it, but in its role as the defining feature in our products, water is so familiar a participant that in some ways it almost becomes invisible.
This time around, I want us all to step back from the intricacies of the design, engineering and construction tasks we all perform to consider the water itself. As we do, you’ll find yourself thinking (as I often do) that we’re in a special, healing trade that uses the curative qualities of water to the benefit of our clients.
Through the years, the spa industry has done a lot to get across this point about hydrotherapy, but I doubt most of us – those who don’t also sell portable spas on a daily basis, that is – ever fully consider the broader implications of water’s healing powers or consciously apply that knowledge in our daily work.
I’d like to heighten our general awareness by relating a few experiences I’ve had through the years – incidents that have caused me to stop and consider the truly profound nature of what I like to refer to as our “main ingredient.”
THE FIVE POWERS
For starters, it’s useful to look at the specific properties of water that make it useful in treating and preventing a variety of human ailments.
I’m no doctor, and it bears specific mentioning that information about therapeutic benefits should come from those who’ve studied the clinical issues involved here, but the fact of the matter is that you don’t need to have gone to medical school to know with confidence that getting in the water can be very good for you.
For several years in the 1980s, I worked as part of a company (now defunct) that designed and sold hydrotherapy equipment. During that time, I had the pleasure of meeting and working with a variety of talented physicians and hydrotherapy experts in the creation of a therapy pool for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. The organization was set up by former National Football League star Nick Buoniconti after his son, Marc, was injured and became quadriplegic.
That experience served to develop my understanding of the importance of our main ingredient, largely through observing the disciplined, structured way the medical community uses water exercise and other forms of aquatic therapy to treat a long list of ailments.
The range of therapies used today is immense, but all of them boil down to the way they relate to five essential points:
[ ] Buoyancy: We’ve all observed that when we enter a pool or spa, the water immediately supports a large portion of our body’s weight. This has obvious and profound implications for those who suffer with a wide range of disabilities and physical impairments. It also makes swimming and water exercises a great way for anyone to get a workout – and with greatly reduced risk of injury compared to most other forms of exercise.
[ ] Temperature: It’s also well known that different water temperatures (particularly, but not always, warm temperatures) can have significant effects on such bodily functions as flexibility and circulation.
[ ] Resistance: The beauty of exercising in water is that, while it supports your body weight and thus enables a widened range of motion for those who otherwise might not be able to move as freely, it also provides even resistance in all directions. Thus, the range of possible exercises is seemingly infinite – and the level of impact can be as light or intense as you want to make it.
[ ] Massage: One of the great pleasures of life (as far as I’m concerned, anyway) is the wonderful, soothing indulgence of hydrotherapy jets in a spa. It’s an extremely pleasant, relaxing experience and can be used to treat injuries and soreness in joints and muscles as well as to increase circulation.
[ ] Psychology: Much of the reason for water’s prowess as an exercise and therapeutic medium is that it provides bathers with a pleasant and invigorating experience. Doctors and physical therapists will tell you that when patients enjoy their therapeutic regimens, they’re more willing to exercise longer and more frequently. Exercising in water thereby feeds the spirit in important ways and can have a tremendous positive influence on a sense of well being.
To varying degrees, these points all come into play when our main ingredient is used for healing. Indeed, some of the most important and inspiring experiences I’ve ever had in my career as a watershaper have come when I’ve seen, first hand, this evidence of water’s curative powers.
If you ever doubt for an instant the amazing benefits of water as a therapeutic medium, spend some time watching physically handicapped children or adults work out in a swimming pool.
During the past several years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the Greater Miami Chapter of the National Spa & Pool Institute on a project aimed at helping severely physically disabled children at a place called the Neva King Copper Educational Center in Homestead, Fla. It all started in 1997, when the chapter agreed to renovate the center’s aboveground pool as part of what we called our “Adopt-A-Pool” program.
We held fundraisers and solicited donations from members in the form of product and the labor needed to rehabilitate and upgrade the 16-foor circular pool, including a new filtering and sanitizing system, a new heater, an improved access system and installation of a wheelchair lift, among other things.
This was all pretty ordinary stuff as pool renovations go – not an enormous undertaking by any stretch. But with respect to the effect the program had on the students at the center, it’s difficult to put it into words: For a great many of these children, their small swimming pool is the only place they can rise out of their wheelchairs and enjoy any real mobility or range of motion. My memories of the sheer joy on their faces as they used the pool will stay with me forever.
I’m not alone in this impression: After watching the kids enjoy the water, Miami Herald reporter Eyder Peralta described the pool as a “freedom machine,” a description that captures the essence of what the benefits of water are all about.
On November 10, 1998, the school held a celebration to mark the re-opening of the pool during which the staff honored those who had contributed to the renovation. Their gratitude, along with that of the students and their parents, was so moving and so beautifully expressed that dry eyes were nowhere to be found. It wasn’t long after that the chapter began working on a more ambitious plan to provide a brand-new
inground pool for the center.
At this writing, we’re almost ready to break ground, but construction has been delayed a bit while the chapter tries to raise funds to equip the vessel with a moveable floor that will elevate from the pool’s bottom to a position flush with the deck. This would enable the kids to be rolled onto the pool in their wheelchairs and lowered gently into the water. It would also allow the water depth to be changed to suit different functions, a tremendous therapeutic advantage.
With or without that elaborate feature, the pool will go in, and it will only be a matter of months before the students have an even greater opportunity to enjoy the water’s remarkable benefits.
BODIES IN MOTION
Our chapter’s work with the center was not the first time I had been so inspired by the curative power of water.
As I’ve mentioned before in this pages, I once hosted a Miami-area radio show called “All About Pools & Spas.” One of the shows that garnered more attention than almost any other featured an interview with Dvera Berson, who had just published a book about water exercises called Pain-Free Arthritis.
During our conversation on that 1987 program, she described how for many years she had suffered with several forms of arthritis and other debilitating conditions, explaining that she’d had to wear a neck brace continuously and that things were so bad that she’d often cry out in pain while trying to do simple activities such as trying to hold a piece of paper or just laying in bed.
She said that she couldn’t comfortably sleep or move and that her doctors were telling her that she would soon be completely confined to a wheelchair. Desperate to fight her conditions, she moved to Miami for its warm climate and began spending time doing light exercises in a swimming pool.
She told us that, right away, the workouts gave her a small amount of relief that inspired her to press on and continue the regimen. By the time I met her at the radio station, I was amazed to see that this woman, who had started her program with what could only be described as limited quality of life, had become vital and fully functional outside the water through aquatic therapy.
I’m not sure in strictly medical terms that you could say she was “cured,” but her day-to-day experience had been completely transformed. She had, for the most part, quit going to the doctor and was off the continuous course of medication she’d been forced to endure. The person I met that day did not seem ravaged by disease in any way: She was energetic, enthusiastic and seemed in wonderful health.
That day we heard from numerous callers who had been moved by her story and wanted to know more. I had been working in the industry for several years at that point, but my eyes were opened wider than they had ever been to the potential water has to treat even the most serious of medical conditions.
PASS IT ON
From that day forward, I’ve always been glad to share what I know along these lines with others who might themselves be looking for a way to improve their physical and even emotional well-being. A few years after my on-air visit with Berson, for example, I was talking to a neighbor at my vacation spot in Key Largo. As is customary in the Florida Keys, I had gotten to know my neighbors and enjoyed conversation over the fence and over the occasional shared beverage.
One day while I was talking with the lady next door, she related to me that she was struggling with an arthritis in her knee and that the pain was becoming more than she could stand. I offered a sympathetic ear and was more than a bit stunned when she said that the condition had become so bad that she had actually considered suicide.
I was taken aback by her confession and did the only thing I could think of in that situation by sharing what I knew about hydrotherapy and about Dvera Berson’s book. Not long after that, my neighbor began doing exercises in the swimming pool at Miami Dade County Junior College and subsequently bought a spa.
A few months went by. When we finally met again, she practically ran up to me, beaming with excitement. I’ll never forget it: There I was, getting ready for a day out on the water, with my neighbor exclaiming that I had saved her life. She told me that the exercise had considerably relieved the constant discomfort she’d been experiencing and that she’d been able to return to a mostly pain-free life.
I don’t often relate that story, but the fact that someone had told me that our industry’s products had saved her life has been in the back of my mind ever since. So today, when potential clients mention that one of their objectives or desires is to use the water for exercise, I know that the value and benefits those clients will receive may well go beyond anything that can be measured in dollars and cents.
Simply knowing that the “main ingredient” in our products can have such a tremendous effect on our clients’ lives gives me a wonderful sense of purpose and confidence as I move through my day-to-day paces.
Furthermore, I’ve found that you never have to look far for inspiration along these lines. Whether it’s something as obviously important as providing freedom of motion for handicapped kids and helping seriously ill individuals regain their health or something as simple as providing everyday relaxation and/or exercise for able-bodied clients, the curative power of water is something to embrace and hold close in our thoughts.
When you stop and think about it, those of us in the watershaping trades have both a privilege and even a responsibility to share these fantastic benefits with others. Doing so, I believe, begins with developing our own understanding of water itself and all the wonders that come with it.