The healing power of sports

Tikvot, a non-profit organization for wounded soldiers and terror victims,promotes sports as a way to instill confidence and hope for a brighter future.

water ski 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy, Tikvot)
water ski 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy, Tikvot)
Asael Shavo was sitting in his home watching A Bug's Life on television with his five-year-old brother one summer night in 2002 when a terrorist broke into his living room, firing bullets in all directions. Asael's mother and three brothers were killed in the attack, which took place during the Second Intifada in the West Bank community of Itamar. Asael "played dead" behind the couch and survived the attack with serious bullet wounds to his right leg. His leg was later amputated and he spent the next two years in the hospital. Now 15, Asael is an avid sportsman thanks to the assistance of Tikvot, a non-profit organization that, through sports, helps victims of terror rehabilitate both emotionally and physically. Tikvot's goal is "to make terror victims winners again," co-founder Mervin "Rocky" Muravitz told Metro. People can lose self-confidence and motivation following such an ordeal so, through Tikvot, Muravitz aims to give them back the desire to win and to restore their belief that they can. According to Muravitz, "terror victims" include anyone who is involved in a terrorist attack - a rocket landing next to a child in Sderot, not wounding him or her but causing psychological trauma; a child who loses a parent or a parent who loses a child in an attack; or a soldier who loses a limb or is badly wounded - they are all terror victims. Tikvot is only in its initial stages as an independent organization, as it used to be a project Muravitz and co-founder Victor Essakow ran through Maccabi World Union (MWU). It is entirely run by volunteers, including Muravitz and Essakow, and relies on donations for funding, since it charges no money from the terror victims it helps. Last month, Tikvot took Asael to the US to get him a special prosthesis for running. Even without this special prosthesis, Asael has been water-skiing, sailing, cycling, swimming and has played basketball and soccer. It's a wonderful feeling, Asael said, knowing that even after losing one leg he can still do all these things. Especially because sports are one of the things he loves most. Staying active in sports showed him that "despite what happened, it's possible to overcome it and to keep moving forward. It's not the end of the world," he said. Tikvot was conceived in 2003 when Essakow's cousin, Board President and founding member of the Challenged Athletes Foundation of America Jeffrey Essakow, suggested to Essakow and Muravitz the idea of helping terror victims through sports. At the time, Muravitz was a member of the World Executive of Maccabi World Union, and so suggested that MWU take it on. "We built it up into a big project, and we looked after hundreds of terror victims," he said. But as the project grew, so did the bureaucracy within MWU, Muravitz said. "Bureaucracy that I wasn't willing to stand for," he added. As a result, Muravitz and Essakow resigned from MWU a year ago and established Tikvot, the Hebrew word for "hopes." In addition to working with Asael, Tikvot has been sponsoring another project called Back to Life, a support group for both terror victims and soldiers. Members of Back to Life go sailing, fishing and hiking together and talk to each other about their feelings and experiences. "Sasha," an oleh from the Ukraine who was wounded during while serving in the IDF in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, goes sailing with Back to Life. "When I'm sailing, I forget the horrors of the war and my [wounds]. I feel normal again, complete, and it's great to do it with other men who have been through similar experiences," he says. Back to Life is run through another non-profit organization, Etgarim ("Challenges"), which provides outdoor sports and recreation activities for the disabled. Etgarim has and uses a boat that has been especially adapted to be maneuvered by the physically challenged. Tikvot plans to purchase its own boat in the near future, as part of another joint project with the Defense Ministry and Etgarim. Tikovt's boat will be used by young IDF veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and have difficulty sleeping at night. The boat will serve as a kind of "clubhouse" for the veterans, who will decorate it, use it as a meeting place and sail it at night when they cannot sleep. Another project on the horizon involves buying soldiers who have lost their legs special running prostheses that would enable them to participate in marathons. Muravitz plans to start this project as soon as Tikvot raises enough money to pay for it. But even without expensive specialized prostheses, Tikvot's participants can participate in a variety of sports, including horse riding, kayaking, sailing, running, gymnastics, as well as any other athletic activity the organizers feel will get the participants "back on the road to feeling [better] again," said Muravitz. "I've seen a young soldier who was shot in the head and sits in a wheelchair shaking all the time. You put him on a horse and lead him around, and within 10 minutes he's riding around on his own. He's stopped trembling and shaking. But the minute you take him off the horse he starts trembling and shaking again... I don't understand how it works. All I know is it's an amazing thing," said Muravitz. Daphna Golan, a dance therapist who also works with animals to promote human welfare, does understand "how it works." She says that being on such a large animal encourages the rider to feel in control and raises his or her self-esteem. "Being able to manage such a big animal is very empowering," she said. "It also takes a lot of concentration. The rider must be attentive to the way the horse's body gallops and moves. You have to connect with the animal. You bond [with] the animal. It's not just a technical thing, it's very much an emotional thing." But Miki Doron, a senior clinical psychologist and specialist in the fields of trauma and anxiety disorders, claims that there is no "serious research" that proves that horseback riding alone can help people suffering from trauma. He does, however, say that sports are very helpful in treating people suffering from PTSD. Doron explained that after a traumatic experience, some people begin suffering from a type of anxiety disorder. They become anxious, have "intrusions" (flashbacks and feelings that the traumatic event will recur) and face many reminders of the traumatic situation. Naturally, they stop doing things that will remind them of the traumatic situation, such as riding buses, going to work and speaking about the incident. Avoiding those activities can cause them to feel depressed and incapable of doing the simplest of things that everyone around them can seemingly do. Together, this anxiety and depression can cause PTSD. Other problems that can result include hyper-vigilance (being over-alert to danger) and becoming touchy, angry, and even violent. Doron said it is important to get PTSD sufferers out of their houses and back to their jobs and family lives, and reassuming the activities they have been avoiding. Sports, he said, can be very helpful in prompting PTSD sufferers to become active, feel healthier, interact with other people and feel better about themselves. According to Doron, regular social activities are not bad, but he says that many PTSD sufferers engage in social activities where everybody else is also suffering from PTSD. "They talk about what's wrong with them, how their communities forgot them [and] how they don't get much recognition for their suffering," he said. This type of togetherness can worsen the pathology rather than cure it. Soldiers wounded in combat suffer from PTSD in a different way than victims of terror, Doron - who is also a former IDF Chief Mental Health Officer - explained. Most of the time, veterans suffering from PTSD have suffered from more than one or two traumatic events. Lots of them experienced a number of traumatic incidents over the course of their army service. But a terror victim suffering from PTSD has usually suffered one particular event. "Being able to identify that one experience makes it much easier to treat terror victims suffering from trauma than soldiers," Doron said. "Sometimes, veterans don't openly show that they have PTSD because they feel shame and guilt about what they did during their service," he said. "This is often not the case for terror victims, because the problem of thinking 'Look what I've done' is often harder to cope with than the problem of thinking, 'Why did it happen to me? Why didn't I do anything to stop it?'" There are various methods and protocols for treating PTSD. Most involve partly re-engaging sufferers with normal life and different types of exposure to the traumatic events. Therapists guide them through revisiting the memory, so patients can eventually remember what happened without as much pain being associated with the memory. "One of the most important facts about our soldiers - as compared to other soldiers in other countries - is that we send our good guys to the army, so they have much more resilience when they go and therefore suffer less from PTSD than soldiers in other countries," said Doron. In addition, the Defense Ministry has one of the best programs in the world for rehabilitating soldiers, he said. Compared to the USA and Britain, Israel has little occurrence of veterans returning from their service being troubled, going to prison and suffering from drug and alcohol abuse. However, many veterans continue to suffer from their memories because they do not wish to make use of the treatment available, Doron said, because being exposed to their memories can be painful. The Defense Ministry looks after soldiers, but the National Insurance Institute (Bituah Leumi) cares for civilian victims. The NII finances any therapy that terror victims need undergo as a result of their experiences. Following the Second Lebanon War, the NII launched a new initiative in which it calls victims of terrorist attacks a few months after the event to ask them how they are doing and whether they are suffering from particular symptoms. If they are, the NII invites them to get treatment at no cost. "Israel is the only country in the world where a national organization like Bituah Leumi calls civilians to ask them how they feel after a terrorist attack and offers them free treatment," said Doron. People can, of course, still come in and ask for treatment. They do not have to go through the courts to make claims for disabilities, though "a lot of people do go to court for disability benefits and more money, which is okay," said Doron, "But they can get treatment for free." "You can always find people who aren't happy. [I'm not] trying to paint a pink picture. Lots of patients feel they aren't being [compensated] enough or [aren't] in the best treatment, and it's not easy to go back for more treatment. It's not that everybody is happy here, of course. But the [system] tries to be better and better," said Doron. Unfortunately, government financing can only go so far. Therefore, non-profit organizations like Tikvot are crucial. In its new independent form, Tikvot has raised NIS 700,000 to date, according to Muravitz. This is enough money to buy a boat for the use of terror victims and start its project for soldiers suffering from PTSD, but it will take a few more zeroes on the end of that sum for Tikvot to reach its full potential in realizing the hopes of the country's victims of terror.