Miracles can happen

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

dolphin 88 (photo credit: )
dolphin 88
(photo credit: )
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. The mother takes care that her calf is out of his reach. It is Philipp's second week at the reef. "He is 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 started here." Philipp's father Uwe, and his big brother, Pierre, also came to Eilat. The care and the security of the family are important for the results of the therapy. The second day was better. "Philipp was curious, he watched and he accepted Sophie, although he was gesturing all the time that he wanted his father," Marlit says. Philipp cannot talk yet. His parents taught him a sign language to facilitate the step to talking. The dolphins are stimulating Philipp. "This second week we see him making efforts to utter words all the time." Sophie Donio is one of the pioneers of the 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. "Step by step it improved. Still, every day I learn more." Now, Donio refers to it as "a supportive experience with the aid of dolphins. We are not trying to cure or heal people. We are 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 closed 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 been born. To celebrate, the whole group of dolphins escorted the mother and her calf for an hour and a half as they cavorted along the contours of the reef. 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 the needs and possibilities of 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, very often closely watched or supported by one or more curious dolphins. All activities are dependent on the mental and physical 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 during the pregnancy, 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 and to be able to love him and to care for him. "Now, Philipp is my heart and my 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 is 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 ("He is crazy about music") 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. The 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 movie, a supermarket sponsored drinks and snacks and a friend contacted the local press. We never thought that so many people were 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 on the platform, Donio keeps eye contact all the time. Thus she knows how far she can go and how long Philipp is keeping his concentration. She has a very special bond with the dolphins: They like to approach her, and they 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 bottlenose 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. Maybe I will let him swim with a mask tomorrow." Marlit and Uwe are equally enthusiastic. "Here in Eilat, Philipp became more loose and relaxed, more independent too," Marlit says. "At home, he asks for help for 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 one of the many cushions 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 is 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 did 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 that 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." She is crazy about Chan. "What a sweet boy." When I ask her if she has these feelings towards all of her pupils, she just smiles. 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 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. "Looking back, I feel grateful for her remarks." When Chan smiled for the first time, Franke returned to her old self. Following the advice of the Vojta therapist, 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 wanted Chan to sleep in our bed. He didn't join the therapy sessions and he was crying on a daily basis, also in Chan's presence." Franke felt like she had to take care of two babies. "Chan's father loves him very much, but he cannot accept that his son is impaired." The parents separated after two years. Now Chan visits his father every other weekend. Chan had dolphin therapy before they came to Eilat. "When Chan was nearly two years old, the two of us 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." Later, Franke and Chan went to Spain twice. "Chan also learned a lot there." Suddenly, he used words like "you" and "me." One evening in Spain he said: "You also eat." (Franke always feeds Chan first.) The dolphin therapy does not help Chan in physically; there is no cure for his disease. It only works mentally. Franke had to be creative, too, to be able to afford the therapy in Eilat. This time a cousin was the guardian angel by donating the revenues from a benefit concert by his punk band. In Eilat she is receiving practical help from her brother and sister. Together they are renting an apartment and both assist on the platform and in transporting Chan. He cannot sit nor 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 in a shady spot on the reef's secluded beach. I get an enthusiastic response when I ask him if he enjoys the therapy. 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. Isn't it just that being on a holiday, in a powerful environment of desert and sea, relaxes a child and his parents, evoking different behavior than at home? When I express these thoughts to Donio, she walks into her office to get me a book. The doctoral thesis of Nicole Kohn, a German scientist. "Try your best, I cannot read that language myself." The thesis reports on the effects of dolphin therapy among 193 multiply disabled children. About half of them received dolphin therapy in Eilat, the others in Key Largo, Florida. It was the first time that a survey on this scale had been done. Kohn bases her findings on interviews with parents, teachers and therapists. Her research does not leave much doubt that the dolphin therapy has significant positive effects on cognitive, motor and/or emotional development. It also shows that these effects last - she repeated her interviews six weeks after the end of therapy. Another significant finding is that when the development of a child improves, the parents benefit too. Many parents reported that the quality of their own lives had improved due to the therapy. Back home, I wait three months before calling Philipp's parents to ask if they still notice the effects of the therapy. Philipp, Marlit proudly tells me, spoke his first full sentence: "Papa come." Moreover, his fine motor skills improved, he does not 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. "We learned that Philipp is able to do much more than we thought he could and we also learned how to challenge him." 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 a video about dolphins on, 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.