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GREENEVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – Wyatt Matthews is almost two years old and he hasn’t taken his first steps yet.
That doesn’t stop him from crawling across the living room floor to his favorite toys, pulling levers and pushing buttons, his left leg dragging just behind his right. His curled left hand is wrapped in a brace, and his parents encourage him to try and use it.
Wyatt was born with cerebral palsy, specifically hemiplegia, meaning he doesn’t use the left side of his body. His mother, Michelle Matthews, said that Wyatt’s doctor at Vanderbilt recommended aquatic therapy to accompany regular physical therapy appointments.
“(The doctor) recommended swimming, that the symmetry of swimming would really help him learn to use his left side and to strengthen that left side more,” Matthews said.
The Matthews don’t have a pool at their home, so that’s when they started looking into options in their community.
Michelle’s first attempt was contacting the Greene County YMCA in search of a program for kids with disabilities.
Matthews said she thought an introductory water class would be too much for Wyatt at his age and condition, so she said she asked director Mike Hollowell for accommodations for her son, but she said her request wasn’t considered.
“I feel that the Y could at least consider a pilot program,” she said. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and that’s fine. They’re not even willing to consider it to my knowledge, so that’s frustrating.”
She said the director suggested open swim hours for Wyatt, but Matthews said she is concerned that having other people in the pool would be too much since her son also has sensory issues.
Hollowell declined to be interviewed for this story, saying that the YMCA’s Board of Directors “do not feel that any further response to a non-members situation is warranted.”
“We are proud of our efforts to strengthen (the) community through various outreach programs and feel that we have offered sufficient accommodations to the family involved,” the statement says.
Matthews next turned to the defunct pool at the former Greene Valley Developmental Center, which housed people with intellectual disabilities until it closed as a living facility in 2017.
That route ended with a call to the Governor’s office, Matthews said, and messages unreturned since she called months ago.
State Rep. David Hawk, who represents Greene County, said he hasn’t heard any plans for the near future of the pool or the rest of the facility.
“There’s nothing definitive,” he said. “I would hope there’s discussions being had for future uses (of the facilities).”
A race against time
Wyatt maintains his weekly physical therapy appointments, recently transitioning to constraint therapy to encourage use of his left hand and leg.
Wyatt can currently stand with assistance, but he doesn’t bear weight on his left leg, so he can’t stand without help and he can’t walk.
Dr. Lori Jordan is the director of the Pediatric Stroke Program at Vanderbilt. Jordan isn’t Wyatt’s doctor, but she specializes in pediatric neurology, also serving as associate director of the hospital’s Pediatric Neurology Residency Program.
“(Aquatic therapy) is usually effective as one component of a therapy plan,” she said. “in general, I think the mantra in therapy is ‘Provide it early.'”
The problem Matthews and her husband run into with aquatic therapy is therapists usually work during business hours, and water play with an experienced therapist is at least a 45-minute drive away.
She said she and her husband have just been looking at options to get Wyatt used to the water outside of physical therapy sessions. Jordan said an indoor, heated pool is best for aquatic therapy.
Jordan added that part of the reason aquatic therapy is successful in children is that it’s fun for them.
“I think, it’s both a combination of how it sort of differently strengthens and stretches muscles as well as just that it’s a different therapy that the child often likes very much and is able to cooperate with,” she said.
Matthews said one of her concerns is a race against the clock. The developing brain begins to “prune” usually completing between 4 and 6 years old, according to the National Institutes of Health.
That means the brain cuts back on unused synapses. Since Wyatt isn’t using the left side of his body, Matthews said the goal is to get Wyatt to use his left side in the next few years.
“We need him to like water,” she said. “We want him to have a good experience having water play and learning to use that left side.”
More common than one may think
Jordan said Wyatt’s condition, Hemiplegia, is under the Cerebral Palsy umbrella.
She added that cerebral palsy affects anywhere from one-half to 4 in 1,000 births and that early intervention is key.
“These are children that have often a lifetime to live with disabilities and as early as we can intervene and help them strengthen their weaker side and get to good function and good quality of life, the better for everyone,” she said.
For now, Matthews said she and her husband are looking into building a small therapy pool for Wyatt in their home.
” I feel like he would just be better served if it was in a controlled environment with kids that are similar to him that have sensory issues or disabilities,” Matthews said.
“It’s not just Wyatt that could benefit from this.”