Saturday 17 March 2018

'Swimming eased my daughter's panic attacks' - says mum of scoliosis sufferer (14)

Straight2Swimming participants Jonathan Smithers (12) and Aisling Devoy (14). Photo: Joe Keogh.
Straight2Swimming participants Jonathan Smithers (12) and Aisling Devoy (14). Photo: Joe Keogh.

Arlene Harris

With three in every 1,000 children in Ireland born with scoliosis, an all-inclusive swimming programme aims to ease both the physical and emotional pain of the debilitating condition

Three out of every 1,000 children in Ireland are born with scoliosis - curvature of the spine. While not very common, this condition is very debilitating and causes problems both physically and mentally, as sufferers often feel emotionally stressed at being 'different' to their classmates.

But as any swimmer knows, we are all equal in the water as buoyancy aids our movements, relaxes our minds and helps with both fitness and general aches and pains.

Straight2Swimming is a unique programme devised by Philip and Edel Convery at the Belfast Swim Club, offering children with scoliosis the opportunity to gain emotional and physical benefits from being in the water.

"Surgeons both north and south of the border had children who encountered great difficulty dealing with the condition which, for most children, occurs on entering puberty," says Edel.

"These children already had great steps to take along the path to becoming adults and are increasingly aware of their development, so scoliosis makes them feel very different from their peers at a time when they crave to be accepted and fit in.

"Straight2Swimming became a solution to this self-consciousness and aloneness by allowing these children have their own group of peers where they all suffered similar experiences due to scoliosis.

"By giving them their own dedicated club I felt they would have the ability to express themselves as teenagers should, and also learn from other children and adolescents in the same boat - and the results have already been fantastic."

Aisling Devoy is one of the participants of the Stright2Swimming (S2S) programme at the Curragh swimming club in Kildare. She was diagnosed just over a year ago and her mother, Elaine, says this was a very traumatic time for her teenage daughter.

"We discovered in December 2014 that Aisling had scoliosis," she says. "The doctor said she had a 45-degree curve (in her spine) and would need surgery - needless to say she was devastated and while both my husband, Gerard and I were very shocked and upset, we dealt with our emotions quickly as we needed to get ready for everything Aisling would have to face."

Aisling (14) was booked in for surgery before Christmas 2015, but while her last X-ray revealed that the curve has increased to 56 degrees, the Dublin girl is now not likely to be operated on until April or May of this year - almost 18 months after diagnosis.

Frustrated at the lack of progress, Aisling and her family are trying to focus on the positive.

"When we were made aware that Aisling would not be having her surgery before Christmas, it hit us all very hard," admits Elaine, who also has an eight-year-old son, Oisin.

"Aisling cannot understand why she has been left waiting as she had pinned all her hopes on getting her life back to normal.

"Instead she is in pain and takes medication which gives her constipation, so she has to take another medicine for that.

"In the last few months she suffers with acid which I believe is from the way her spine is sitting, so she takes another medicine and she suffers from panic attacks when her lungs are tight and she feels she can't breathe properly.

"But since April 2015, she has being going to a physiotherapist in Dundalk who specialises in Schroth Method physio for scoliosis. We do physio sessions at home every day, she goes to the gym as well and since last May has been swimming with Straight2Swim every Sunday."

Despite her constant pain, Aisling has benefitted from the swimming group, which Elaine says is helping both physically and mentally. "In May 2015, the clinical nurse in Crumlin told me about the S2S programme in Belfast and that there were plans to start it at the Curragh, so I kept a look out for it," she says.

"So when it popped up on a scoliosis Facebook page, I rang immediately to get Aisling's name down and she has been going since the first week it started.

"I feel it has built up her lung function as she often feels as if she isn't getting enough air into them, so although she finds it tough during the sessions, her lungs do function better afterwards.

"On the emotional side, she suffers from panic attacks and the night before her first session she had an attack and also on the drive there, but once she got into the water, she relaxed.

"She was the same on the second week, but after that started to enjoy going. It gives her the chance to meet other teenagers in the same situation - some are like her, waiting on surgery, while others have had theirs so it's good for her to see what things will be like for her after her operation."

"I think it is wonderful that Edel, Eimear, Sargent Rock and the whole team put so much time and effort into swimming sessions for our children," she says.

"Aisling really enjoys it and has so many other things to keep her busy as well. She is an easy-going 14-year-old, is hard-working in school and does her best to be the same as everyone else.

"She is an avid guitar player and used to love golf but because this causes her so much pain, she has had to give it up - however she never complains and sees the positive in everything. And like everything she does, she enjoyed the challenge of the S2S swimming and has been putting 110pc into it."

Eimear Brown is the S2S programme director. She says children with scoliosis do not have to be great swimmers to take part in the group as the most important aspect is just getting them into the water.

"The swimming session varies depending on the individual," she says. "Some kids post-operation will only be able to walk in the water initially and will build this up to running and doing exercises. Some do not know how to swim so the coaches work with them separately building a programme to teach them.

"We get individuals who can swim but not so well, so we build up their confidence and technique in the water and we also get children who can swim very well, so we focus specifically on technique and increasing their level of fitness.

"The S2S is a closed session where only children with scoliosis swim in a stress-free environment and each session is tailored to the individual's needs, as kids come to us pre- and post-operation the stuff they can do in the pool differs so each coach tailors their sessions accordingly".

About Straight2Swimming

• Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine affecting two to three per 1,000 people in Ireland.

• There are two types: congenital scoliosis which children are born with due to a malformed spine and the second, most prevalent affecting 80pc of scoliosis presentations, idiopathic or no known cause, which typically presents pre-pubescent children and due to their growth can be very aggressive.

• Developed by the City Of Belfast Swimming Club, the Straight2Swimming programme is specifically aimed at pre- and post-surgical scoliosis sufferers under the age of 18.

• There are approximately 60 children in NI and 35 in ROI currently participating in the S2S programme

- 95 children on the island of Ireland.

• The Straight2Swimming programme offers these children a fully private swimming session, funded by American specialist spine medical device company K2M.

For more information see

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