How Hydrotherapy Became Aoife Fleming's Career Destination
The name of the child in this article has been changed to protect his/her privacy.
Aoife Fleming had been a swimming teacher for a year when she met four-year-old Ger Byrne.
Ger wanted to learn how to swim but six prior swimming teachers had refused to work with him because he was a non-verbal, autistic child who also dealt with muscular and neurological challenges. Aoife didn’t think she could do it either. She went home after their first lesson facing the prospect of becoming the seventh teacher who had given up on Ger.
“An absolute disaster” is how Aoife described that first lesson in retrospect. He couldn’t talk to her and he wouldn’t let her talk to him too much either. There wasn’t an obvious solution.
The easy out was to give up on Ger and pass him onto his eighth option. But that wasn’t what Aoife wanted to do. She wanted a solution so she soon found one. A woman in her small Kilkenny town was working with autistic children in a full-time role. She gave Aoife tips that helped her engage with Ger before then inviting her to attend a disability summer camp.
It proved to be a seminal moment for both Aoife and Ger.
“In one of the summer camps there was a kid who had autism but he also had ADHD. So he had autism and he wasn’t able to stand still on top of that. Olivia started doing all these tricks with him to get his focus back to her rather than him being focused on the lights or anything around him.”
“I started doing that with Ger and I did it for two lessons. Then I was holding him, spinning him around in the pool having fun, when all of a sudden he took his two legs and pushed off of me and swam to the wall. I burst into tears. His mother burst into tears. We’re both in the middle of the pool crying and Ger’s just having a great time.”
Ger gained greater confidence the more he swam and soon he was jumping in and out of the pool at ease. For him, he was having more fun than he’d ever had. For Aoife, he was learning how to save himself if he was to ever fall into a pool unsupervised.
Little did she know at the time that Ger would soon find himself in that very situation. Away with his parents in another country, they found Ger dripping wet with no explanation. He had wandered out of their sight and fallen into the hotel pool.
Instead of it being a tragic accident, he simply swam back to the side and pulled himself out.
A simple act for him then. A life-saving act. But not something he would have been able to do if Aoife had just passed him on to the next swimming teacher and those teachers continued to follow suit. She found a way to make their lessons work and the results couldn’t have been better.
“That was summer of 2019 so [he had only been swimming with me] five or six months which is unheard of for an autistic kid. I’d seen loads of kids go from nothing to something but I’d never had that experience with a child who wasn’t able to communicate with me, I wasn’t able to communicate with him but we got the job done. And I was like, that’s game now, that’s me done.”
“He’s after changing up everything for me because it’s because of him I now want to go into neurological hydrotherapy.”
Aoife had known that she wanted to work in physiotherapy for some time. A self-proclaimed water baby thanks to her mother and with a father immersed in hurling, county camogie and competitive swimming came calling at an early age. So did the physio. One planted foot, one heavy shoulder from a “12-year-old girl built like a brick” and Aoife wound up with a bad ankle injury and a newfound experience called physiotherapy.
Despite being just 10 years of age in a grey, gloomy physiotherapy room, she slowly developed an affinity for the work being done to her and being done around her.
“I was playing a loading and a non-loading sport, a contact and a non-contact sport, so I was always getting these different kinds of injuries so that’s what started it off for me. From going to physio I was always fascinated by how they would do certain movements and they could know what’s going on.”
Being built for speed rather than strength and playing in age groups multiple years her senior meant that Aoife’s body kept breaking. She had to keep going back to that grey room. She wasn’t unique. Young children across the country need physiotherapy on a regular basis.
Those experiences gave her an appreciation for what could be achieved to help children.
Combining her experience as a patient and as a teacher made Aoife realize how much more could be done as a neurological hydrotherapist with a more innovative practice design.
Neurological hydrotherapy focuses on nerves more than muscles or ligaments. It’s about rehabilitating the communication between the brain, the spine and the person’s limbs. As Aoife explains, it’s basically just trying to get the person moving without gravity. When there’s no impact and you can control how much of a person’s weight they have to support, you can create a safer environment for them to recover in.
“A person with neuro disorders will struggle to carry their own body weight. If you look at someone who has a sprained ankle, they still have the other leg, but when it comes to neuro if there’s any part of the spine then it’s bi-lateral so either side can’t catch itself. Mainly with hydro physio most of the time it’s more neural but it’s beneficial for anyone who had a major incident and needs a lot of care.”
Hydrotherapy is more popular in England than in Ireland currently. That’s something that could change with more qualified graduates in hydrotherapy. Aoife has her educational path mapped out, she is currently studying for a Level 8 Sports Therapy degree at Portobello. She will go on to study for her Master's in Physiotherapy two years earlier than most students her age because of the Portobello path and because she skipped transition year.
After graduating from Portobello and getting her Master's, Aoife will study hydrotherapy and paediatrics physiotherapy with a neurological specialization.
“You have so many kids out there who actually need physio, there’s nobody to do hydro physio who is actually specialized in it. These kids are going through enough without having to go into a physio to a cold grey room [with] a cold bed. They see needles and they see oil and someone is going hard working on them. There’s nothing there for them other than a scary, old dark room. They’re going to be scared and that’s the last thing that I want, these kids have been through enough. The most you can do is help them but have fun with it. You can throw in whatever type of toy that they want into the pool and have them swim to it and that’s just as beneficial because you’re getting the mobility without any of the strain.”
“Nobody has really heard of hydrotherapy but my intent is to have a whole innovative practice. My main goal is hydrotherapy but in a couple of years I hope to have an innovative physio practice instead of just having a room where it’s super boring.”
Aoife already has her layout in mind with different ideas for different rooms, both for hydrotherapy and physiotherapy, that will accommodate children and adults.
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