Miracles can happen

Dolphin therapy in Eilat gives children and their families another lease on life.

dolphin 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
dolphin 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Five-year-old Philipp, who has Down's syndrome, is floating in the water next to a female dolphin and her newborn calf. Gone is his usual impatience. He gently caresses the mother's back. It is Philipp's second week at Dolphin Reef. "He's growing day by day," his mother Marlit explains. His first day was hard. "Everything Philipp doesn't know, he doesn't want. He didn't want a wet suit, he didn't want to go into the water and he didn't want to be with [trainer] Sophie. We wondered what we had started here." Philipp's father Uwe, and his big brother Pierre also came to Eilat. The care and security of family nearby are important for the results of the therapy. The second day was better. "Philipp was curious, he watched and accepted Sophie, although he was gesturing all the time that he wanted his father," Marlit says. Philipp can't talk yet, so his parents taught him a sign language to facilitate communication. The dolphins are stimulating Philipp. "This second week we've seen him making efforts to utter words all the time." Sophie Donio is one of the pioneers of Dolphin Reef. She started as a diving master. "I noticed how deeply the dolphins affected our visitors," she says. After a year, she proposed starting dolphin therapy for disabled children. Her proposal was accepted and she developed the program herself. Now, Donio refers to it as "a supportive experience with the aid of dolphins. We're not trying to cure or heal people. We're giving moral support." The Dolphin Reef pays homage to a distinctive philosophy. The dolphins, a group of bottlenoses, are not forced to interact with humans. They are free to choose between human company and the continuation of their daily routine of hunting, courting, playing and socializing. The reef, a corner in the Gulf of Eilat enclosed by nets, provides the dolphins with a natural environment. The water is deep and full of fish, allowing them to hunt for most of their food themselves. Their social life is rich. The first time I visited the reef, a baby dolphin had just been born. In addition to Donio, the reef has four other trainers. They know the dolphins, they can anticipate their behavior and they know their likes and dislikes. The trainers also have the ability to understand their impaired pupils. Each therapy session has two parts: in the sea and on a platform. In the water, the trainers mediate contact between the dolphins and their pupil. On the platform, the trainers play games with the children, often closely watched or supported by one or more dolphins. All activities are dependent on the abilities of the children. Philipp was not planned. Nevertheless, Marlit was flying high when she noticed her pregnancy. After giving birth, she was completely shattered. "On the ultrasound the embryo seemed to be completely in order. I didn't do an amniocentesis so as not to endanger his life. Now I am glad I didn't, because if I had, I would have requested an abortion." Uwe and Pierre were a big support after Philipp's birth. From the first minute, they fell in love with him. For Marlit, it took a long time. "After two days I stopped crying for myself and started crying for the baby. But I continued crying for months for the baby I didn't get." Later, she understood that her pain was necessary to accept the child she had gotten. "Now, Philipp is my heart and soul. He changed us all. Material things, like a new car or fashionable clothes, are not that important anymore. We experience that love, and our family is so much more important." It's not easy to have a child with Down's syndrome. "You never know what Philipp will do. You can't lose sight of him for a second." Before Philipp was born, Marlit worked as a surgical assistant. She doesn't have the time anymore. At home, Philipp gets therapy too, speech therapy, music therapy and riding therapy ("he loves horseback riding the best"). Because Philipp was not developing as Marlit and Uwe wanted him to, they began dolphin therapy. Marlit had read about it, and also saw a program on TV in her home in Lindenscheid, Germany. Finances were the main obstacle. The family has only one income, and the trip to Eilat, as well as their two-week stay in a hotel, are expensive. "We organized a flea-market in our home town to collect money. The Dolphin Kids [a German organization informing the public about dolphin therapy] showed a documentary, a supermarket sponsored drinks and snacks, and a friend contacted the local press. We never thought so many people would be willing to help." The more therapy sessions I observe, the more impressive Donio becomes. Although she doesn't speak German, she is able to communicate with Philipp effortlessly. Everything shows that they understand each other. In the water as well as on the platform, Donio keeps eye contact all the time. She has a special bond with the dolphins: They like to approach her, and seem to understand Philipp's possibilities. During a ball game on the platform, Donio engages one of the dolphins to throw the ball to Philipp a few times by using his nose. Later, one of the dolphins lends a nose when Philipp drops a plastic basket in the water. "Today was a very good session," Donio says close to the end of Philipp's second week. "In the water he is more and more controlled in his interactions with the dolphins. Today he was really caressing them tenderly. And did you see us playing games on the platform? It was the first time Philipp laughed aloud. Everything shows that he is getting more and more confident and brave." Marlit and Uwe are equally enthusiastic. "Here in Eilat, Philipp became more loose and relaxed, more independent," Marlit says. "At home, he asks for help with everything. Yesterday we saw him take a bottle and pour himself a glass of water on his own." During this conversation, Philipp is sitting on a floating platform, listening to music on his headphones. "Also in the water you could notice that he gained courage," Uwe adds. "He is not sticking to Sophie all the time. It's important for his future development that he learns to fight his fears." CHAN IS crying on this, his first day. He is in the sea with Donio. When putting his wet suit on, his little finger got stuck and it hurt. "Maybe it was still painful, or maybe it was just the fright" Donio comments when they climb out of the water. She is satisfied with the start. "Cindy [the paterfamilias of the dolphin family] was with us all the time. Other dolphins came to touch Chan's feet." I had noticed too that dolphins were swimming next to Donio and Chan all the time. It seemed as if the dolphins felt Chan needed them. "Chan did not react so much to the dolphins," Donio continues, "but he was watching them. It is amazing to start the session with a crying kid and to get such a happy ending." Chan, six, lacks control over his muscles. Doctors diagnosed cerebral palsy (or more specifically, spastic quadriplegia) two weeks after his birth. It was caused by an infection his mother Dunja Franke had caught during the pregnancy. The bad news hit Franke hard. "I cried and cried and cried. My own parents died when I was six and I wanted to give this child everything I had missed. In the first period after his birth, I was not able to feed him, to change his clothes, nothing. Family and friends helped me to get through." While still in the hospital in Cologne, Chan received Vojta therapy, stimulation of the sensorimotor system's reflex points. When Franke started crying during the first session, the therapist told her to leave. "Your child will not gain anything from a crying mother," she said. "She was right" Franke realizes now. When Chan smiled for the first time, Franke returned to her old self. Franke treats Chan as a normal child as far as possible. "His father cannot do that. He doesn't dare to leave Chan alone for a second. He was crying on a daily basis, even in Chan's presence." Franke felt like she had to take care of two babies. The parents separated after two years. Now Chan visits his father every other weekend. Chan had had dolphin therapy before they came to Eilat. "When Chan was nearly two, we went to Florida. There, in the water, he spoke his first word: mama." A year later they went to Sharm e-Sheikh. "Unfortunately, in that period no dolphins showed up." The dolphin therapy doesn't help Chan physically; there's no cure for his disease. Franke had to be creative, too, to be able to afford the therapy in Eilat. This time a cousin donated the revenue from a benefit concert by his band. In Eilat she is receiving help from her brother and sister, who assist on the platform and in carrying Chan; he can't sit or move on his own. Even an outsider can notice that Chan benefits from the therapy. He is shining - in the water, on the platform and after the sessions on the reef's secluded beach. But he doesn't want me to carry him into the water. "Too tired." A BIT SKEPTICAL by nature, I wonder whether the effects of the dolphin therapy will last. Back home, I wait three months before calling Philipp's parents to ask if they still notice a difference. Philipp, Marlit proudly tells me, spoke his first full sentence: "Papa come." Moreover, his fine motor skills had improved, he doesn't need a diaper anymore at night, and he makes an effort to dress and undress himself. "In a way, we also got therapy as a family," Marlit concludes. From Chan's mother I wanted to know if this time too something beautiful happened to her son. "Chan looks up now if he hears something," Franke says. "He is using more words, and if I turn on a video about dolphins, he starts laughing and telling me: 'There, we were also there.'" The Dolphin Reef in Eilat has a Web site, www.dolphinreef.co.il, that provides information on the therapy program.