Madison Gilliland is like many young girls her age who love Disney’s The Little Mermaid. It was no surprise when she announced that the theme for her third birthday party would be Ariel, especially considering that she is learning to swim like Ariel during her aquatherapy. What makes “Maddie” unlike other young girls her age is that she was born with spina bifida, a birth defect which prevents the spine from closing normally in the womb.
Thanks to early detection while she was still in the womb, Maddie was able to receive post-natal surgery as part of a clinical trial at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) after her birth. The results of the surgery are far beyond what even her doctors expected.
“She going above and beyond anything we were told was possible,” Selina said. “It’s been amazing. When you get the diagnosis, you’re devastated. You put all your hope into the surgery. Every time we go back, they are amazed at how she’s doing. She’s a feisty little girl. She sets her own limits. There’s nothing she won’t try.”
The Gillilands were attracted to the idea of aqua therapy and met CeCe Dugas, the aquatics director at Slidell Athletic Club. Dugas works with nearly 50 children, seven of whom have special needs ranging from physical to behavioral. She is working on a research paper that focuses on her work with Maddie and another of her special-needs swimmers.
“(Maddie and Dugas) connected,” Selina said. “She’s gotten so much out of it. The benefits have been huge. Maddie likes the freedom of it–moving around, the sensory aspects. She’s able to move around freely which helps with coordination and flexibility, just the stamina in general. You don’t know how much exercise you get out of it. When she gets home, she’s zonked.”
Maddie currently meets with Dugas twice a week for a one-hour lesson. Her older brother Mason helps his sister in the water, too.
“The water in general is good, but it’s especially good for kids with special needs because it allows them more mobility,” Dugas said. “They put such a great effort forth in the beautiful way they learn and the way they process information. You have to meet each child where they are and treat them each individually…. As an instructor, you have to pay attention to details, especially with kids with special needs.”
Out of the pool Maddie wears leg braces to help her stand. The spina bifida makes her unable to control her legs below her knees and is unable to rotate her feet forward or downward, as is needed for normal walking movement. In the water, she has no limitations.
“To see someone like Maddie who is working daily, defying her own limits, the water has been huge,” Selina said. “She has no limits out there. She can float around and she’s free. The things that are a challenge on land, they kind of don’t count in the water. It’s huge what it does (for her) mentally. It makes her think she can do anything.”