When Lauren Zimmerman found herself with a few weeks of downtime the summer before starting her internship at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C., she searched for a volunteer opportunity to combine her interests in family therapy and children with disabilities. Through a friend, she learned of Island Dolphin Care, a nonprofit organization based in Key Largo, Fla., that provides dolphin-assisted therapy to children with critical illnesses, disabilities and special needs. Zimmerman spent two weeks there last summer as an intern.
"It was a utopic environment for those children," Zimmerman says of Island Dolphin Care. "I wish every family that has a child with a chronic disability could go there."
Families from all over the world visit Island Dolphin Care, where staff provide recreational and motivational therapy for children with disabilities and psychological problems including Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and depression.
It's a chance for family members to bond in a fun environment while meeting other families who understand the challenges of raising a child with a disability, says Zimmerman. As dolphin therapists worked with the children in the water, she assisted from the dock, documenting the sessions, positively reinforcing the children and encouraging families to appreciate their children's abilities. A child with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair, for example, might be able to grab onto a dolphin's dorsal fin and go for a ride, thus experiencing a freedom of motion that may be impossible on land, as well as a sense of achievement.
"It was the most thrilling experience, to see the children push themselves beyond physical limitations," says Zimmerman. "Granted, these families may face overwhelming obstacles at home such as surmounting medical bills or education challenges, but right here, right now, we celebrate what their children can accomplish."
Island Dolphin Care attracts families who partake in one- to two-week therapeutic programs that can include music, yoga, massage, family therapy and time spent swimming with the dolphins.
The dolphins and the excitement of swimming with them are powerful motivators for children, says Zimmerman. For example, a child with limited mobility could float with a kickboard while the dolphin pushes him or her around the pool. Playing with dolphins is novel and thrilling, and it's a way to work in tactile and sensory stimulation and physical and behavioral therapy, says Zimmerman.
The program also focuses on self-esteem and empowerment. When children are given choices, such as whether they'd like to hold a hoop or a pole for the dolphin to jump over, they start to hear the message "I can" instead of "I can't," adds Zimmerman.
This message is reinforced because families attend each part of the program alongside their children. When the child's in the water with the dolphins, the parents and siblings sit on the dock and cheer them on. Focusing attention on the child with a disability switches up what's often the prevailing family dynamic — in which the child with a disability may be in the background of family activities such as an able-bodied sibling's baseball game. This attention shift can have dramatic effects, says Zimmerman.
"I think that family togetherness and support and love are just as important as formal medical interventions in improving the quality of the child and of the family as a whole," she says.
Despite the lack of research recommending dolphin therapy (see box), Island Dolphin Care's managers, Deena and Peter Hoagland, believe dolphins helped their son Joe, who was born with a rare heart anomaly. During his third open-heart surgery, 3-year-old Joe experienced a massive stroke that left him unable to use the left side of his body.
The Hoaglands brought Joe to a local dolphin tourist attraction to use their pool for physical therapy. By swimming with a dolphin named Fonzie, Joe improved so much that the couple went on to found Island Dolphin Care and build a therapy center that employs physical and occupational therapists and special education teachers.
Families also benefit, says Zimmerman, as they meet and share their experiences of caring for their child with a disability. That aspect of the program resonates with Zimmerman, whose 24-year-old sister, Katie, was born with hydrocephaly. Katie uses a wheelchair and is severely developmentally delayed. Zimmerman says her family has learned to rally around Katie despite her challenges, and this resiliency is something Zimmerman hopes to instill in families with whom she works.
"I recall from my own experiences growing up that sometimes people don't understand what it's like to have a sibling with a disability," she says.
In addition to helping individual families, Zimmerman would like to share her expertise with legislators who have the power to create nationwide change. In particular, she's an outspoken advocate for preventive health care and sees psychologists as pivotal for helping to manage many pediatric illnesses.
In the case of a child with diabetes, for example, insurance companies are more likely to cover insulin and hospitalization if the child becomes hypoglycemic, says Zimmerman. But insurers often won't pay for the family to work with a therapist who can teach them how to manage the condition so it doesn't require emergency intervention.
"I would love to work with legislators or special interest groups and say, 'I know we are talking dollars here, and I know it's more cost effective to get families involved in treating children,'" says Zimmerman.
Ann Womack, PhD, an associate clinical psychology professor at Argosy University and Zimmerman's dissertation chair, believes Zimmerman could have a bright future in advocacy.
"Lauren is very clear-sighted and knowledgeable without being sentimental about it," says Womack. "She's going to be a great clinician, and with her people skills and her enthusiasm, she would be a very powerful advocate."
By Erika Packard