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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 13, 2002

Ninety degrees of restoration Ninety degrees of restoration (November 13, 2002)

Palo Alto's Betty Wright Swim Center is warm-water exercise oasis for those with chronic pain and limited mobility

by Diana Reynolds Roome

"This is where I belong now," said Helen Gonfiotti, bobbing cheerfully in the pool. "I only wish I'd known about it much earlier."

Gonfiotti started warm water therapy at the Betty Wright Swim Center on Middlefield Road in Palo Alto in August, hoping to gain greater mobility and relief from the pain of severe osteoarthritis. She had seen leaflets about the swim center in her doctor's office, and he was all for her trying aquatherapy, a healing method that is mostly available in hospitals.

However, hospital pools are not available to the public, and public pools are too cool for many people who need a healing environment. The Betty Wright Swim Center offers the public a gentle environment of 90 degrees and the guidance of trained rehabilitation specialists. It is also adapted for special requirements such as wheelchair access.

"Here I'm feeling the best results of all," said Gonfiotti, who had found pain relief from acupuncture and chiropractic care, but not much increased mobility. Now she is immersed up to her neck in the Water Wellness class. "I am moving body parts I haven't moved for almost a year. My pain is different from what it was before -- it's still intense, but before it was intensely excruciating. My friend calls it pain with hope, instead of pain with despair."

Water has always been known as a natural healer, said Sheralee Beebee, manager and aquatic rehabilitation specialist at the center, but it is only recently that aquatic therapy has been recognized as a serious treatment option for a range of painful and disabling conditions.

"After a low-back injury, for example, often physical therapy is so painful that patients rehabilitate passively and their muscles atrophy. Then they have to rehabilitate not only their back but also the rest of an inactive body. Water helps them restore the balance of strength in the body," Beebee said.

In warm water, people can also relax -- a state that is often difficult to achieve for those in pain. Tissues soften and stretch more easily, Beebee said. Water assists and amplifies movement, yet offers gentle resistance to muscles for building strength and agility. The pressure helps to squeeze blood back to the heart without making the heart work any harder. This all-over pressure improves circulation, too, and swollen feet and legs often return to their normal size after half an hour of exercise. For most, it is a unique opportunity to experience pain-free (or at least reduced-pain) exercise.

"After a stroke, you don't want to fall," said George Chadwick, who still works after a stroke that paralyzed him down his left side. "But in water you can fall, and it doesn't hurt."

Beebee specializes in stroke, arthritis, Parkinson's, and recovery from injury. She said that water therapy gives an aquatic trainer or therapist enormous advantages: They can gain access to the patient's body from all angles, below as well as above, and move it in all directions.

The center recently underwent reorganization and now offers classes ranging from the traditional back-injury prevention and arthritis to classes on relaxation and stress reduction with exotic names like watsu and ai chi -- energy techniques that incorporate special breathing, visualization and flowing movements.

After tearing a ligament in her knee during a tae kwon do class (on land), Palo Alto resident Rosemary Stevens tried a "water-walk" class at the swim center. "When you're injured or hurting, warm water is a great place to move," she says. "The pool gave me a place where I could stretch and move my muscles without putting weight on them."

In Gonfiotti's "water-wellness" class, participants suffer from problems ranging from quadriplegia due to spinal cord injury to paralysis after stroke. Many have difficulty walking and may need assistance on land. In the water, they are self-sufficient, and radiate confidence and calm.

Holding onto a rail, students are able to glide knees over toes, hips over knees, and bend their spines back in ways they could never do on dry land. "They're listening to where the tightness resides in their bodies," Beebee said, "and Vladimir (the instructor) helps them relax and breathe into those spots. All our practitioners are assisting people to understand their own bodies."

Another advantage of the swim center is that it offers a therapy option after prescribed rehabilitation has ended. Even for people whose disability is long-term or chronic, Beebee said, there is often nothing to bridge the gap between intensive physical therapy and a person's slow return to optimal function. At the swim center, therapy sessions are often paid for by insurance plans, Medicare, Worker's Comp and auto-accident insurers, with a physician's referral. The therapy helps patients keep whatever level of fitness they still had.

"It's critical for me not to stop therapy," said Lorraine Larson, who suffered a back injury when she was in her early 30s and has been swimming at the center for four or five years. "If I didn't go through classes daily, the quality of my life wouldn't be as good."

When she is in bad shape, the swim-center staff can usually offer both understanding as well a practical remedy, such as the natural traction offered by hanging in deep water and letting the blood flow between the vertebrae.

"Hanging helps to elongate the spine," said Larson. "When you inhale and exhale correctly, using stomach muscles, the process takes pressure off the lumbar joints. You'd be amazed at what you can get out of just breathing here."

Stevens recently had surgery for her injured knee, but she intends to get back into the pool as soon as possible. A Masters swimmer in the past, she hopes to maintain her health by swimming after the knee has healed. To this end, she suggests that the swim center might hold more classes for people wishing to stay well; for example, a weekend session for office workers to counteract sedentary habits and avoid repetitive stress injury.

Stevens also appreciates the opportunity simply to swim and play in warm water. Her daughters, aged 7 and 8, learned to swim with ease here after expensive swimming lessons at a regular pool had failed to get them afloat.

"The multi-generational atmosphere at family-swim time is really nice," Stevens says, adding that a 90-year-old friend sometimes joins them in the pool, too. For more information, call Betty Wright Swim Center @ C.A.R., 3864 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA 94306. (650) 494-1480.


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