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Working in Water Comes Naturally

By Dawn Frasieur

El Cerrito physical therapist Alan Ling believes that swimming is an exceptional therapy tool. “Little babies swim before they n can walk,” he said. “It’s such a natural thing. You eliminate gravity and move freely without restricting forces.”

Ling is enthusiastic about the use of such a natural approach to therapy. For that reason, he shies away from machines in his practice.

“We don’t use many machines,” he said. “I believe people heal better with touch.” Ling described what he does as a kind of “touching for healing.” The combination of comfort and skill is the key, through hands that have been trained and have thus become therapeutic tools.

Ling doesn’t believe people should depend on technology so much and sees his approach as something of “a step backward” that has produced remarkable results.

He became interested in pool therapy during his first job as a physical therapist. He had a spinal cord injury patient who had great difficulties walking on his own. “The minute I threw him in the pool, he walked without me touching him.”

Ling became excited by the possibilities of water therapy, and has since continued his study to learn all he can about alternative approaches to his profession. . Ling is convinced that pool therapy is a proven successful approach to a number of physical problems. “I’ve seen 50 to 100 percent improvement within the first nine sessions for simple problems, like neck ache,” he said.

It can also be fun. “In pool class we sometimes just play,” he said. “Therapy shouldn’t be 20 of these, 30 of those. Therapy can hurt and be uncomfortable. You need to give people a mental and physical break.”

And the best part of the approach is that patients can continue their own therapy once trained, simply for the price of pool admission.

Ling believes that most physical therapists are not trained to look at the whole person. He finds they “tend to shy away” from the emotional complications that come with treating people’ ‘with really serious disorders.’

Dr. Stephen Isono, a local orthopedic surgeon, has been something of a mentor for Ling in that regard. “He stresses quality care” and is committed to the whole patient, said Ling. “He treats. the person, not the part. And he has a high success rate. I like that.

“Aquatic therapy forces you to treat the whole body,” he added. “It’s better to integrate than to treat parts separately.

“Look at all the different subdivisions in the medical profession that just treat backs,” he pointed out. “Even’ in therapy there are specializations. I see everything. It will remind me to treat persons, not parts.”

Ling has the same “holistic” approach to the medical field in general. He believes that all the disciplines should work together, from physical therapists to chaplains and others who can tap into a patient’s spiritual resources.

On the other hand, he said, “No one doctor can do it alone.” And with so many choices of disciplines, he finds that’ ‘people get confused. Who do you go see? You have to trust someone to direct you.”

Someone with a recurring neck , problem may be suffering pain because he’s depressed, for example: While Ling would never write off a problem with “It’s all in your head,” he might suggest seeing a trained counsellor to deal with the roots of the problem. “I could treat the neck problem,” he said. “But it might not be the neck that’s causing it.”

Other patients come more for “physical comfort” or a respite from the stresses of their lives. “I would direct someone like that to a’ good massage therapist,” he said, perhaps someone who also has counselling training.

“We have 85-year-old patients taking care of 82-year-old spouses,” he explained. “There’s incredible stress. When they come to see us, they’re saying, ‘Here’s someone to take care of me.”

Ling has encountered, a few problems. In general, he finds that a fear of the water can be overcome. “When we’re injured, . we have no control over our environment,” he said. But with supervision and trained personnel willing to put in some time, he’s found that even injured patients won’t be afraid.

Ling doesn’t believe age is the critical factor in recovery possibilities. General health and fitness are much more important, he said. So is the attitude.

“It has to be a team effort. If you invest in people, you bring’ out the fight in them. They fight for you, then they fight for themselves,” he said.

“I’ve been doing this 80 hours a week for three years. I’m still excited about it.

“It’s (a combination of) service and education. We teach people ‘I how to take care of themselves. That’s the bottom line.”

Reprinted from July 18, 1991