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Patients find hope in Mercy's aquatic therapy program

A mom battling osteoarthritis. A former K-State football coach ready to enjoy retirement. A nurse who just wanted to garden again.

Manhattanites Linda Clement, Jim Davie, and Sally Shields don’t know one another. But in a way, they’ve been down a similar road — each facing health struggles that were tough to treat with traditional physical therapy. And they’ve all found healing and hope in the very same place: the water.

The Aquatic Therapy Center at Mercy West was unveiled in November 2011. And though it hasn’t even reached its first anniversary, the pool is a major hit. Brian Howells, director of Rehab Services at Mercy, is one of six members of the physical therapy team with the aquatic therapy program.

“We see, in the pool, anywhere from five to nine patients a day. It’s been incredibly popular,” Howells said.

“There are people out there who have a difficult time trying to exercise, trying to get their life turned back around. We wanted to offer something that would allow them to get back that quality of life.”

Linda Clement: Getting strong

Take Linda Clement. The mom of two — a son, 31, and a daughter, 28 — has been battling osteoarthritis for years. The disease has caused a string of injuries, from shoulders to ankles to wrists. The biggest hurdle came when she had her knees replaced, first her right in November 2010, and then her left two months later.

“I worked on weight machines for over a year and the pain in my knees never subsided, so I knew I had to try something different,” Clement said.

“I thought, ‘I’m not trying to be an Olympian here; I just want a normal life.’ In January 2012, I went back to my orthopedic surgeon and told him: ‘My legs are strong, but my knees aren’t. I’d like to try aquatic therapy.’”

With her doctor on board, Clement began visiting Mercy’s pool in February 2012. Three times a week, she worked with physical therapist Amber Befort. The difference was noticeable immediately.

“The water takes the pain away. I can feel it working on my knees,” Clement said.

But there’s more to this pool than water. It has special equipment — including resistance jets, an underwater treadmill, two underwater video cameras, and a chairlift for patients in wheelchairs — that allows people to exercise effectively without pain. Better yet, the sessions are led by therapists who can tell patients exactly how to minimize their pain outside of the pool.

“Every time Amber saw anything out of place, she would jump right in and she knew what to do to correct it. She has that much experience and knowledge,” Clement said. “She is a wonderful therapist. I think Mercy is real lucky to have her, and I know I was very fortunate to have her.”

Week after week, Befort analyzed Clement’s every motion, and gave her practical tips to move with less pain. For instance, Befort helped Clement see (with the help of the camera) that when she walked, her knees turned inward instead of staying aligned above her toes. The two worked with the treadmill, did squats, and used resistance fins. Clement could feel herself getting stronger.

“My pain was a seven to eight out of 10 when I came to Amber. We worked really hard, and I think we got down to a three or a four when I left,” Clement said.

“May 17 was my last session with Amber. I felt she had taught me the things she needed to teach me. I asked her if she had some exercises I could do, so she took her time and found me a program that I could use at the pool.”

Clement now has a fitness pool membership at a Manhattan hotel, where she exercises four times a week. It’s a program she’s committed to wholeheartedly — because she knows it works.

“I’ve had ankle, wrist, and knee injuries, and Mercy West is the best experience I’ve ever had. I looked forward to coming here — and I’m not a person that likes water or swimsuits,” she said. “There was not a single employee that didn’t have a friendly smile and kind words.”

Jim Davie: The coach gets coached

Like Clement, Jim Davie formed a good rapport with therapist Amber Befort, finding something of a kindred spirit.

“We talk about everything. And she has a sports background, so we discuss every day in the pool what is going on in the sports world. She’s just a nice person and I enjoy working with her. And she knows what she’s doing, too,” he said.

A football coach by trade, Davie coached his way across Kansas before landing at Kansas State in 1978 and making Manhattan home. Now retired from Kansas Farm Bureau, Davie was already a physical therapy patient at Mercy West, working with Befort on some lymphedema (or swelling) issues in his right knee. When he heard the pool would be making its debut in November 2011, Davie jumped at the chance to be one of the program’s first patients.

“I can move a heck of a lot easier in water than on the ground!” he said with a laugh.

“Amber monitored my movements just to make sure I was walking correctly. I have a habit of my right foot going out, and she tries to keep me in line. She’s tough!”

Davie faithfully attended aquatic therapy sessions from November 2011 through May 2012. His twice- and thriceweekly visits did the trick.

“Amber got down the lymph swelling, and then the movement that I needed to have was accentuated by the use of the pool. I could get on that treadmill in there for 25 minutes and just go. The whole muscle area of the leg works better; it’s great therapy,” he said.

Nowadays, Davie is mainly focused on enjoying his retirement with wife Maggie and spending time with his four grandkids in the Kansas City area. He even helped coach one of his grandsons in football. And he carries on with therapy, replicating the exercises Amber taught him in his own pool at home. When the cold weather returns, he hopes to head back to Mercy West.

“As long as the doctors say it’s OK, I’ll continue on, because Medicare pays for a lot of it,” Davie said. “The best change in my knee and the most help that I got was here.”

Sally Shields: Back to the garden

For Sally Shields, a registered nurse and mom to a 17-year-old son, the injuries that led her to aquatic therapy were shockingly sudden. On the morning of Dec. 26, 2010, Shields awakened like normal.

“I just got up one morning and I thought: ‘I really feel like I threw my back out.’ I took one step, broke my foot, and my pelvis had broken in two places,” she said.

Shields didn’t trip or fall — the breaks simply happened, the side effect of a medication for her lung condition: steroid-dependent asthma.

“It was horrible. I have osteoporosis and bone disease from a medication that I take for my lungs; that’s a side effect.”

After a significant surgery on her foot, as well as treatment for her pelvis, she was relegated to a walker, and told she could do absolutely no exercise. For a fitness nut such as Shields, it seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.

“For a year, I was either non-weight-bearing, or partial weight-bearing on a walker, crutches or a cane. Those fractures were just the worst thing that could happen to me. I was born in a pair of tennis shoes; if I’m not sweating, I’m not happy.”

She remembers her doctor saying that winter: “It’s too bad you don’t have a pool at your house.” The water, it turned out, was the only thing that wouldn’t be too hard on her body while it mended. With those words still ringing in her mind, Shields took notice when Up Close arrived on her doorstep in fall 2011 — announcing the new therapy pool at Mercy West.

“I will never forget: I went out and got my mail, read about the pool, went right into my house, and called my physician and said: ‘I need a referral to Mercy!’” She had her first appointment with physical therapist Brian Howells just a few days later, in November 2011.

“It was just heaven because you can do anything in the pool. I knew I was in a safe environment with Brian. To get into that pool after not being able to do anything for so long, it was just incredible. After a year of doing nothing, you’re in pretty bad shape. To get strong, to be able to set these goals and meet them, was like, ‘Wow, I can do that?!’”

Though doctors say she’ll always have to deal with pelvic pain from her fractures, therapy helped her pain “a lot” — and built her up in so many other areas.

“When I started, just getting out of the car was really hard. I’ve improved immensely in balance, coordination, strength, physically becoming much more fit and much more confident in myself and in my body.

After months of regaining her strength, she was able to add in physical therapy outside the pool. And Howells didn’t just have her doing cookie-cutter exercises.

“The great thing about Brian is there wasn’t anything he couldn’t or wouldn’t tackle. It was always, ‘What are your goals? And what’s important to you?’ I have a big garden, and gardening was really hard on my pelvis with all the bending. So he would say, ‘Let’s pretend like we’re gardening.’ I wanted to be planting, digging, pulling weeds. He helped me with some ways to do it safer.”

Shields returned to nursing with Northeast Kansas Facial Plastic ENT and Pulmonology in August 2012, after nearly two years of recovery. Though she officially completed therapy in May 2012, she assembled a collection of exercises that she still uses daily. And most importantly, she’s able to be out in the garden, where she belongs.

“The aquatic therapy is the best thing that’s happened to me through the course of my illnesses,” Shields said.

“I will always be grateful for Mercy. I’ve been a patient in and out of Mercy for 22 years. I always bring my family to Mercy. It’s just where we go for comfort and healing. And getting the pool is a wonderful addition.”

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