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NF/SGVHS aquatic therapy program helps Veteran overcome physical and cognitive challenges

Mary Sue Mistler participates in aquatic therapy at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville Florida led by Recreation Therapist Paul Smith.
Mary Sue Mistler participates in aquatic therapy at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville Florida led by Recreation Therapist Paul Smith.

For U.S. Navy Veteran Mary Sue Mistler fear and panic began to set in as she got older and started dealing with long-term chronic illness.

For U.S. Navy Veteran Mary Sue Mistler fear and panic began to set in as she got older and started dealing with long-term chronic illness. She felt her body start to weaken and noticed that she was having trouble coordinating and organizing her body’s movements.

“I’ll never forget the moment, while on vacation, when I jumped into a pool and felt as if my brain and muscles forgot how to swim,” said Mistler. “I have always been a little athletic so, for me, that was when I realized that something was very wrong.”

Diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, light sensitivity and experiencing difficulties with being upright and moving around became increasingly difficult for Mistler.

“My health care providers at the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System (NF/SGVHS) recommended the aquatic therapy program,” said Mistler. “Not only does the program provide physical benefits but is great for people with neurological conditions like me, as well.”

The NF/SGVHS aquatic therapy program is a consult-based whole health therapeutic treatment provided by certified recreation therapists who are also qualified/certified in basic water rescue. Sixty-minute therapy/clinic sessions are offered throughout the week, Monday – Thursday with patients working in small groups in a heated ninety-degree swimming pool located at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville Fla. Each session consists of a general warm-up followed by strengthening exercises, walking, or swimming in the water.

“Everyone adapts to their own ability,” said Mistler. “You don’t have to do it at a set speed or rate which is great!”

Veterans are referred to participate in aquatic therapy for a variety of reasons that include chronic pain, obesity, metabolic pathologies, depression, PTSD, and neurological disorders/conditions, as well as, for the need to improve their overall physical fitness. Veterans working on developing skills for adaptive sports in preparation for competition also participate in the program.

According to NF/SGVHS Recreation Therapist Danielle Orr, the aquatic therapy program provides Veterans with a unique experience that helps to improve their individual health related goals, extends benefits experienced through earlier phases of physical therapy and treatment, and provides education on strengthening, mobility, and gentle flexibility exercises within the water.

“Time within an aquatic therapy session is set-up for Veterans to work on areas of exercise that they feel are important to them, such as additional strengthening, conditioning, mobility, or swimming as well as using the dry-land equipment on the pool deck,” said Orr.

NF/SGVHS Recreation Therapist John Mikula, a long time certified tactical training instructor explains that an innovation grant helped provide equipment for the pool deck that gives Veterans an additional means to perform strengthening exercises using their bodyweight as a primary resistance.

“Several hydraulic-based strength machines were added to our pool deck which provides a somewhat gentle approach to strength training and has proven benefits, especially among older individuals and those with neuromuscular conditions,” said Mikula. “Several specialized pieces of aerobic equipment were also added to the mix, as well as a more advanced training area that includes an Olympic-type training section.”

According to Mikula, Veterans who participate in the NF/SGVHS aquatic therapy program are afforded perhaps one of the most dynamic aquatic therapy exercise experiences within the entire VA system. Tai Chi, Yoga, and mindfulness are also incorporated into the aquatic therapy program and help with providing additional avenues for participants to enjoy staying physical and practice conditioning techniques within the water.

“Using the hydrotones (water dumbbells) and doing bicep curls, arm raises, leg movements, and standing in neck deep water and exercising have helped me see tremendous progress over the past year,” said Mistler. “One of the first things that I was able to work through in aquatic therapy was destressing my body and brain. I was better able to pay more attention to my breathing which is very important when trying to coordinate your body’s movements in water.”

Mikula explains that aquatic therapy is great exercise for anyone.

“Aquatic therapy helps promote weight loss, decreases chronic pain, increases range of motion and joint flexibility, improves muscle strength and standing and walking balance, is good for general conditioning, and so much more,” said Mikula. “The hydrostatic pressure of the water also helps increase blood flow and circulation and can also enhance respiratory muscles and pulmonary function. “There really are a ton of benefits!”

Mistler feels passionate about aquatic therapy and is ecstatic with the positive results she has experienced because of the program offered by the NF/SGVHS.

“I think that there is a lot about the aquatic therapy program that still surprises me a year later,” said Mistler. “It really is easy to take for granted how coordinated your body is when you are younger.” “This has been an eye-opening experience and I am greatly benefiting from less severe cognitive fatigue and have noticed an overall increase in strength throughout my body.”

Veterans interested in the aquatic therapy program offered at the NF/SGVHS can speak with their health care provider at their next appointment and ask that a consult be entered for an evaluation to participate.

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