How aquatherapy helped me overcome serious injury and life-threatening illness, and changed my life forever
The Doctor said “Everyone is entitled to the odd blip, and we may never know why you blacked out.”
Weeks earlier, when coming down for breakfast and for no apparent reason, I had blacked out. It was as if I had been pole-axed! I was out cold and I fell onto a solid stone flagged floor. My fall was broken by the corner of a heavy kitchen table on the way down. All this left me with broken transverse processes in my neck, a dislocated shoulder and a collar bone injury.
This incident led to my introduction to hydrotherapy. The orthopaedic surgeon was quite adamant and said: “You need intensive hydrotherapy or you will end up with a stiff neck and a frozen shoulder.”
My only experience of any form of rehabilitation had been many years earlier, when I had a cartilage operation on my left knee. There was no keyhole surgery in those days and I had to spend months in a splint. I would catch the bus to the local hospital, have the splint removed, exercise and then have the splint replaced. It was a long, slow and sometimes painful path to recovery and I was frequently told: “If it doesn’t hurt, it won’t work!”, or “No gain without pain!”
How different this hydrotherapy experience was, with its gentle movement and buoyancy-aided exercise. Soon I had a good range of movement and made an almost complete recovery. Surprise! Surprise! My troublesome knee, on which I had tried heat treatment and acupuncture, also improved. This was an added bonus. Feeling really fit and well, I went back to work, with no problems.
Eighteen months later, after checking some building work, I jumped down from a low scaffold and immediately felt a sharp pain in my back. It was really sore, so I went to see my GP who sent me to A&E.
He told me that I had a fatty lump in the muscle, that lots of people have them, and that I shouldn’t worry about it. Fortunately for me, it was so uncomfortable that I decided to go back to the surgeon who had treated my neck and shoulder earlier. He said that, if it was really uncomfortable, he could remove the fatty lump on the following Monday. I was pleased, as it meant a few stitches and back to work.
Monday came and I went in for the procedure. Later in the day, the surgeon came to see me and explained that what I had was not a fatty lump after all, but a malignant tumour! According to the surgeon, my reply was “That’s a bit of an inconvenience, I’ve just started building an extension!” He laughed and said,” I’ve heard it called many things, but not ‘a bit of an inconvenience.’”
I was very fortunate to have a specialist who openly told me that he had no experience of operating on this kind of tumour, but that he knew of a surgeon with specialist knowledge of bone and muscle tumours. He had already asked him to take over my case, so I was then referred to the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham. In the meantime, he had taken biopsies and sent them away.
The next week was a blur of activity, arranging for dog, cat and house sitters, as well as informing my shocked family and friends. The strange thing was that I did not feel ill, just angry. A retired doctor, who was a close friend, said “Anger is negative. Focus it into something positive”. I tried to take her advice and set about tidying my office, ready for my eventual return to work.
In the meantime, the biopsy results came back showing that I had an aggressive type of cancer. It turned out that I needed major surgery, leading to the removal of the complete right side paraspinal muscle bed, followed by half-body radiotherapy, to be carried out at the Christie Hospital in Manchester.
Once all the treatments were completed, I had to consider my rehabilitation. I was stiff, sore and in some considerable discomfort. I had been provided with a shaped, vacuum-formed cushion, to fit my now oddly-shaped back, a raised chair and a body corset that felt like a straight-jacket. It was all very practical, but offered no long-term hope of improvement. I did not really want to accept any disability aids, which is what these were, as I wanted to try and resume my life with as much normality as possible.
Hydrotherapy had worked for my neck, shoulder and knee, so why, I thought, shouldn’t it work again? With little to lose and a great deal to gain, I started a long course of hydrotherapy: three or four sessions per week, combined with massage to stretch the scar. The changes were amazing and I no longer needed any of the aids. However, once the therapy stopped, muscle spasms returned and mobility and flexibility were lost.
It was then decided that the solution would be to build a pool of my own. During this period, my wife had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), and, if hydrotherapy was working for me, then perhaps, we reasoned, it might help her. After some research, we found a builder and built our own pool. It worked quite well but, with hindsight, it could have been designed better.
A few years later, a house move enabled us to build an improved pool. I approached a number of companies who claimed to specialise in aquatherapy, but we were only offered fibre-glass pools and spas on the basis that “one shoe fits all”. Nobody really listened; we were told what we could have, but not offered what we really needed.
It was then that I met pool engineer Andrew Flynn, who had all the experience and knowledge that I lacked. With his help and advice, we built a very specific bespoke pool.
All was going well when, quite suddenly, my aquatherapy no longer seemed effective. I was suffering with what appeared to be severe back pain, but it turned out to be referred pain from a previously undisclosed heart condition which required immediate surgery. After recovering, with the pain gone and the aquatherapy working once more, a chance meeting with Andrew led to a new career.
Having worked in special education for some eighteen years, I had noticed how stimulation with music, light and water seemed to relax the children. Andrew was currently researching aquatherapy, combined with all forms of sensory stimulation, and so together we combined our efforts and found that many specialist companies were, in fact, selling “off-the-peg” solutions without seeking advice from the professional experts who had to use them.
So, we formed a new company to provide bespoke designed pools and, because of my personal experience, we pay particular attention to the specific needs of each client. None of this would have been possible without the support and help of all the health professionals who gave me such excellent treatment. Without doubt, my wife’s MS and my own conditions have benefited enormously from aquatherapy, giving us a much improved quality of life. I have tried to channel all my experiences into positive actions that I hope will help others in need of aquatherapy.
Martin Brook is a director of Aquasure UK: