In the water, Emma Francis can dance.
The twelve-year-old experiences a freedom she can’t experience on land when she’s in a swimming pool with aquatic therapist Tanya Salwach.
Emma’s wheelchair is left in the change room. The warm water loosens her stressed muscles. The sense of weightlessness allows Emma to unwind as Salwach moves, cradles, rocks and stretches Emma’s tiny, tense body.
“Emma is a water angel,” Salwach said of the young girl who has Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder that almost exclusively affects girls.
“In the water, I’m able to dance with her. It’s the only time kids (such as Emma) have a chance to dance because they’re not bound by their wheelchairs.”
For one hour every week, Emma attends watsu, a gentle form of body therapy that combines muscle stretching and massage in 35º C water.
In the same way other children look forward to after-school activities such as soccer or music lessons, Emma loves donning her pink swimsuit and attending watsu.
“It’s the one hour a week when Emma is totally relaxed,” said her mom, Pamela Francis. “She’s not fighting with her body. She’s not frustrated. She’s relaxed, she’s happy, she’s having fun.”
“In the water, I’m able to hold (children like Emma) and let them move, let them dance, let them be free and let them experience movement that they can’t with gravity,” Salwach said. “The only place you can do that other than the moon is going to be in the water, where they are weightless and they have the freedom to move without pain and struggle.”
Being a watsu practitioner is much more than just a job for Salwach, who takes immense pride in her work with kids such as Emma.
“I couldn’t have children of my own and so I had to redefine ‘Mom,’ ” she said. “I had to redefine what that was for me, and when I hold these kids and know that I’m making a one-hour difference in their life a week, it’s a way that I can fulfill that maternal instinct.”
Since she was a child, Salwach has been drawn to people with disabilities.
“They’ve never intimidated me. I’ve never drawn back. I’ve never stared. I’ve just always wanted to get in there and help and give them as much joy as I can,” she said.
Emma can’t walk unaided or talk, but she uses smiles and facial expressions to communicate.
Like most children with Rett Syndrome, Emma initially developed normally and met typical baby milestones. As an infant, she said words such as ham and mom, used her hands to pick up toys and scooted around on her backside.
But, as is typical with the disorder, Emma’s development started to regress before she turned two. Her father, a stay-at-home dad, watched helplessly as his toddler lost skills she had mastered, such as catching a ball.
“You don’t know what’s going on and it’s terrifying,” said Emma’s dad, David Francis.
“You’ve got this healthy little girl and, all of a sudden, things start to go sideways, some if it fairly quickly,” he said. “She was starting to get a few words and then all of a sudden it was like a tap slowly being turned off. You could just see her abilities kind of going away and shrinking.”
Emma was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome when she was nearly two. Today, she is locked in a body that doesn’t work, but remains a social, smart and happy child.
“What most people don’t understand about Rett Syndrome is there’s nothing wrong with Emma’s mind,” said her mom.
“She’s a smart little girl. She’s in a body that won’t co-operate. The connections aren’t there, but she’s full of love and joy.”
Emma loves going to school at Emily Follensbee — a Calgary Board of Education school dedicated to students with special needs — and spending time with her parents and eight-year-old brother, Noah. She sits in a special trailer when her family goes on bike rides, and is pushed in a specialized stroller on visits to the park or mall.
Tanya Salwach in Bearfoot Health and Wellness