After nine grueling years of therapy, dashed hopes and incremental progress, Amber Mickel was able to use a walker -- a bit. But she couldn't run and play with other kids, her grandmother, Sally Mickel, recalled.
Amber was a robust infant until she was 3 months old. Then everything changed. Pneumococcal meningitis nearly took her life and left her deaf, suffering from cerebral palsy, and developmentally disabled.
Then in 2005, practically in the blink of an eye, everything changed again, thanks to Palo Alto's Betty Wright Swim Center, the therapeutic aquatics center for people with disabilities at Middlefield and E. Charleston roads.
Amber's father put the little girl into her swimsuit and lowered her into the water.
Sally turned her back on the pool for only a second. Then she heard Amber's father yell,
"Mom! She's walking!"
Sally's voice broke with emotion, recounting the story earlier this week.
"She was running through the water -- all the way across the pool," she said.
Now 14, Amber can walk on land and can even run a bit.
"It's absolutely amazing. For years, we had to pack up all the gear -- the wheel chair and the walker -- we couldn't just go 'anyplace,'" Sally Mickel said.
Amber's Lourdes-like miracle has been repeated many times at Betty Wright, although perhaps not as spontaneously, clients said.
Persons with paralysis, heart, neurological and arthritic conditions, developmental disabilities or injuries from accidents go into the pool often unable to stand or walk.
In the 93-degree water, working with dedicated hydrotherapists, they learn to stand, walk and swim. An evolution often takes place. Some clients learn to walk on land, without having to be buoyed by the water.
But the center, opened in 1969, is aging. A boiler that keeps the pool at its healing-level temperature is near to failing and the building's ventilation system needs revamping, staff says. Solar panels will help cut energy costs in half -- crucial in these lean-budget times -- and the money saved will help fund scholarships for people who can't afford the therapy fees. Funding will also help train additional hydrotherapists, Renate Henry Olaisen, director of social enterprise for Abilities United, which runs the swim center, said.
The center's has launched a major fundraising campaign, "Project WaterWell," aims to raise $425,000 by Jan. 31.
Hydrotherapy client Ron Cote and his wife, Geri Hadley, a member of the Abilities United board, are heading up the campaign. Cote became paralyzed from the waist down in January 2005 due to a spinal condition that was initially undiagnosed. Surgery did not restore his mobility; he remained in intense pain from spasms that come with paralysis, he said.
Hydrotherapy in the warm pool has brought relief from pain to Cote, a retired corporate attorney for Adobe Systems.
"The whole system locks up. It follows down from the torso to the toes. You feel like you're going to break," he said of the pain. The soothing water is crucial to people with spinal-cord injuries; because often they cannot regulate body temperature. Cote once developed hypothermia within 15 minutes of entering an 80-degree pool, he said.
Working with three of Betty Wright Center's hydrotherapists -- Vladimir Choubabko, Morgan Pozzi and Kim Motzny -- he learned to touch his feet to the bottom of the pool and to use his muscles in limited ways: to contract, extend, work and relax.
Cote has had a total of 10 surgeries. Each operation means months of recuperation and setbacks. Each time Cote has sought the water to regain his strength and transcend his pain.
"It allows you to cope with things that would otherwise be so terrible and drain you," he said.
Cote now walks using a walker and he uses a cycling machine. In 2011, he hopes to walk without the walker, he said.
The future offers great promise, he said.
"I'll be happy if I can walk without holding onto things. We could travel again."
Another client, Molly Hale, 61, faced a dire prognosis following a rollover car accident on U.S. Interstate 280 in 1995, in which she suffered a broken neck. Doctors said she would be permanently paralyzed below her shoulders.
She is now walking and swimming.
She initially shunned traditional therapies -- and some drugs could cause liver damage, she said. But Hale, a competitive swimmer in her youth, found hydrotherapy a natural fit.
In 2001Hale could finally get her legs beneath her body and bear weight in the water and, later, on land.
"It completely rocked my world -- just to be able to stand up in one spot and pull up my own pants was huge," she said.
Her arms now take long, powerful strokes through the water. And she can walk on land again, using people for balance, she said.
"The water allows me to unfold and get my body completely open. There is a strong sense of welcome. The water says, 'Ah -- you're home.' That's what it feels like to me. I'm totally free," she said.
Hale and her husband, Jeramy, have started Ability Productions, a product-development nonprofit that is looking at reproducing specialized wheelchairs she and her son invented for use in pools.
Hale also designs homes based on universal design, incorporating products they have developed that make it easier for people with grip issues, she said.
Hale took part in a study at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, which found that she has 125 percent heart and lung capacity of an average person who can walk. In 15 years, she has only had three colds and does not suffer digestion issues common to persons with paralysis, she said.
Hale practiced Aikido martial arts before her accident. It took three years of training but she has passed the third-degree black-belt exam -- from her wheelchair.
"I'm not done," she said of her recovery. In 2011, she hopes to walk on land independently without having to touch an object or person.
"This year I'll be doing more walking -- day to day to day."