Therapy on The Baltic Sea

By Drew Curran

In 1999, my mother had heard about a new innovative therapy in Poland involving what’s called the Adeli Suit. This is the suit the Russian astronauts/cosmonauts wore, modified for people with disabilities. As far as I know it’s still used for therapy today. After thoroughly researching the program, my parents agreed that I would be a good candidate. When I asked why I had to go all the way to Poland for therapy, they said that these programs didn’t exist in the United States. And even if they did, they’d cost close to $80,000, and this one only charged a few thousand dollars.

Back then I had a completely different outlook on life, I was full of teenage anger and would get very annoyed and frustrated with my day to day situations, especially when I had to deal with people that didn’t understand me. The only place I felt comfortable was among my classmates in school. They were my best friends. This was before I went to my youth group. I wasn’t very religious at that time, because when I was younger, I generally did not feel accepted by people in the church because of my disability.

So, one could imagine how I reacted when my mother said, with my father’s support, that she wanted to take me to Poland where I would have to work out for a month and not see my friends. Needless to say, I was perplexed, overwhelmed, confused, and very angry for many weeks. We flew to Poland in the last week of October so that we would arrive there on November 1st. It was very hard to say goodbye to my friends especially because most of them didn’t even understand where I was going or what I was going to do when I got there. I wasn’t even sure that I understood it myself.

The one part of the trip that I was excited about was it would be my first time ever going to Europe and, because of my passion for history, I was looking forward to learning what it was like in a former socialist country.

On the day when it was finally time to fly to Poland, I remember we got up very early and I wasn’t awake for most of the trip. The flight was uneventful. When we got to the rehab center, we were immediately taken to the dining hall for dinner. I was hoping that most of the people there would speak English so I could understand them. This was not the case. There were thirty or so of us who came over from America as a group, so they spoke perfect English. Then there were the people who translated for the Americans that spoke English. They were hired by the rehab center. They spoke English well. Some of them were from England so they spoke English better than I did. Most people who we met spoke only a few words or sentences in English. When I was there, I learned a lot of Polish vocabulary. In the group from America, I was the only teenager. The other kids were nice to be around but most of them were non-verbal because of their disabilities.

The rehab center looked like a rundown apartment building that you would see in the city except it was laid out in a circle. The hotel was attached to the rehab center. I was surprised when someone told me that it used to be a luxurious resort.

We ate dinner in a very sparsely decorated and furnished dining hall. There were many round tables covered by green tablecloths with chairs around them. It reminded me of a dining hall that I was in when I went to summer camp in America rather than a luxury hotel. The two people we sat with for dinner from the American group were a 40 year old man named Steve and his six year old daughter named Michelle who,unfortunately, couldn’t speak. Steve was Michelle’s caregiver, just like my mom was for me.

When the waitress came to the table, she told us in broken English what we were having for dinner and then left us to talk. When she came back, she put down a fairly large plate of food in front of my mother and I. Since we were very hungry from the trip, my mother and I proceeded to eat the whole plate. Steve said “You go ahead, our food will probably be out soon”. When the waitress came back many minutes later, Steve said very politely, “Excuse me, but what happened to our food?” The waitress was clearly agitated and she went and got one of the translators, named Anna, and she explained that all the food was family style, which meant that we also ate Steve and Michelle’s food. The kitchen staff was of course nice and made them another plate of food. My mother and I could not stop apologizing for days.

The next day I familiarized myself with the schedule for the next month. It reminded me of the periods I had in high school. Breakfast was served at 8:45 am. Then myself and the other patients would start therapy. What they would do for me during the first time slot was put warm gel packs all over my body. This made my muscles as loose as they could be for the hard work I had ahead of me. I would come to discover that this was the most relaxing part of my day. The next period I would go to the gym where I wore the suit for two and half hours of intense exercise. Every patient had three therapists and a translator in the gym with them. Most days my mom stayed to watch.

Next, they would take me to what we called the spider cage. It looked like a torture device, but it really wasn’t. It consisted of a harness that was put around my waist and it was tied to the cage by two bungee cords coming off the harness. The therapist would stand or sit behind me and gently push me from side to side, hoping to improve my balance. When I was freed from the spider cage, I would go lay on a cot and a therapist would come and hook my legs up to a large pole so they would get a prolonged stretch. I hated this part of the day. To distract me, my mom would read to me or I would listen to music. I was like that for a half an hour to forty-five minutes, but it felt like three hours.

The final period of the day was also relaxing. It was called TDT Therapy. When I got there, I was laying on a cot and two of the young women would use little machines with magnets up and down my body and go over the parts where I was having any issues, like tightness or pain. I didn’t think that this would help at first because it was so non-evasive, but it did. Looking back, I think this was one of the therapy procedures that helped the most. I think at the center they gave the youngest therapist the TDT job because it was probably the easiest technique. Being a fifteen-year-old boy, I looked forward to this part of the day. I was also shocked at how young the therapists were. They were only a few years older than me. I don’t think the center followed regulations when they hired them or maybe Poland doesn’t have many regulations for therapists to begin with.

On the first day that I had therapy at the center, everything did not go according to plan. This was the first time I met my translator who was very nice. I was lucky because I always seemed to get the best translator. This translator’s name was Dorothy. She was around fifty years old. Dorothy was from America but had moved to Poland to help the rehab center get off the ground many years ago. First, I met my main therapists. There were three of them. The head therapist was Renata. She was about thirty-five years old with red hair. The thing I remember most about her was she told me about her grandfather having been liberated by the American troops from a concentration camp during the Holocaust. This is why she loved Americans. The second therapist was Louise. She was very shy and nice. The third and youngest therapist’s name was Olga and she was only twenty-three. She told me that it was her first year in a gym and before that she worked in the TDT therapy room. The gym was small but it looked like most therapy gyms you see in America with parallel bars on one wall, therapy balls scattered throughout the room that people would sit and do exercises. A massage table, and one or two mirrors were leaning up against the other wall. Each team of therapists had their own gym in the center.

When we first saw my suit, my mom said I don’t think that it’s going to be big enough for Drew. Renata said that it was the biggest one they had since they didn’t get many teenagers in the program that were as tall as me. My mom decided to let them give it a shot after receiving assurances that they would be very careful putting it on me, which I must say, they were. It is somewhat difficult when I put any pants on to get my legs in the correct position. When the three therapists were trying to put my pants on over the bathing suit that I was wearing, they told me to relax repeatedly. This was not a foreign command for me as I get told this many times a day by many different people. I’ve had therapy since I was two years old. I probably know every drill in the book.

They then proceeded to take my leg and drive it into the suit. I heard a pop, but this too is a normal occurrence for me because sometimes my joints rub together awkwardly and it makes a noise. Usually it doesn’t hurt and I move on. This time it hurt but Renata said that they are very sorry and that my knee was probably just strained and I could still workout for the rest of the session. Also, my legs would probably be fine for the next day. So, as a good soldier, I did that without much thought because many therapists had told me this in similar situations and they were right throughout my life when I thought I had injured something but didn’t. The rest of the day passed without much incident, but getting out of the suit was almost as hard as getting into it. As I had stated before, I can walk in most places with assistance without using my wheelchair. I usually walk with no problems when getting into bed at night. That night my leg was buckling. This too sometimes happened to me around that time of my life because my body was growing and my muscles were having a hard time keeping up with my bones. But it usually didn’t hurt like it did this time.

By this point, my mom was getting a little irritated at the people from the rehab center, but we both decided to wait and see what would happen in the morning. In the morning I tried to walk on my leg and I couldn’t. After my mom gently lifted me into my chair, we went straight to the therapy gym and told them what had happened. They were very apologetic and told my mom that she could talk to the owner of the rehab center about coming back at another time because there was no way I was going to be able to tolerate the rigorous program with my leg like this.

Before my mother met with the owner, we saw the doctor at the center. His office reminded me of the nurse’s office at school except there was much less equipment in the room. There were even fewer resources than my school in America. The doctor’s prognosis was that my leg was severely sprained and I couldn’t do any strenuous exercise. He said I was lucky it was not broken or damaged worse than a sprain.

The next day my mom met with Richard, the owner of the center, who was a man in his sixties. At the end of the therapy hallway, there was a couch up against the wall with a big bay window above it. I wasn’t there for the meeting but when it was over, my mom told me all about it. Dorothy, who was the translator with me on the first day, sat with Richard on the far side of the couch while my mother sat on the other side. My mom explained to the Richard what he already knew that I couldn’t do any strenuous work for two weeks. The therapist had sprained my leg very badly, all because they didn’t have a big enough suit for me, something that should have been rectified before we arrived. My mom waited while Dorothy translated this all to Richard. Richard said your son can just wait until he gets better and he can start work again. When Dorothy was finished translating this to my mom, my mom said, “Wouldn’t it just be easier for us to come back at another time when Drew is fully able to participate in the program?” Richard was very dismissive about everything my mother said and the final outcome of the meeting was that he would not give us our money back.

Later, my mom became friendly with Dorothy. They would sit and have conversations at meals and sometimes at night after dinner. She told my mom that the owner was very chauvinistic and didn’t put much stock in what women said. However, when my dad called the owner, the day after the meeting, the owner was very friendly and apologetic but he still would not give us our money back. He said that the doctor had told him that if the therapist gave me nitrogen therapy on my leg, it might heal before two weeks. The doctor did mention nitrogen therapy to my mom but he said it would take at least two weeks to heal. What they did during this procedure was they blew ice cold nitrogen on my leg which was supposed to help the bones heal themselves quicker. My mom was very irritated because no matter how she tried to explain her feelings to the owner of the program he was very dismissive and would not let us come back at another time. My mom was furious with the turn of events.

One thing that helped me through the next few weeks was I met another patient who was a teenager. He was Polish and also used a wheelchair. I couldn’t communicate with him much but, the one thing he loved to do with everyone at the center was play chess. I learned how to play chess a few years earlier at summer camp, and I was still trying to improve my game. Martin was his name and he was very good at chess. We played about three times during the next few weeks, in the lobby of our floor next to the elevator. There were always a few curious spectators looking over our shoulders. My mom would move the pieces for me and Martin’s mother would move the pieces for him. I was creamed by Martin all three games.

When I was cleared by the doctor to have therapy again, a suit that was my size appeared. One day I was in the gym and all three therapists were helping me walk on the parallel bars. Olga was in front of me, guiding me from the front and the other two therapists were behind me. I thought Olga was much prettier than the other two therapists. I started walking and the two therapists in the back were cheering me on to go faster and faster. Olga kept walking backwards until she started to get near the wall. Her face got red and she started laughing uncontrollably. I didn’t know what was going on but, when we were done she told the other therapists that she felt like I was going to kiss her. That was about the funniest thing that happened to me while I was having therapy.

While I don’t have happy memories of the therapy I had in Poland, I did enjoy the people I met who all had a unique impact on my life. I gained valuable knowledge that most teenagers don’t get the opportunity to learn such as to not judge someone because you don’t know what they’re going through. I had preconceived notions that this was going to be a horrible experience, but I still found moments of human connection. Now that I’m older I can say that seeking human connections even in times of hardship is one of the values I have come to cherish the most.

26 December, 2022