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Miami VA Healthcare System

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Magic in the Water

Man holds on to a dophin's pectoral fins in a lagoon.

U.S. Navy Veteran Jorge Larios holds on to Squirt’s pectoral fins as the pair swim to the other side of the lagoon at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, FL during a dolphin therapy session.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Dolphins provide special type of healing for Veterans

When people meet Squirt for the first time, it’s immediately obvious she is not your typical therapist. At about 7.5 feet long and weighing 550 pounds, she doesn’t speak with her patients, diagnose conditions, set therapy goals, prescribe medications, or perform any of the traditional duties one would expect from a mental health or physical therapist. However, therapeutic sessions with her have done wonders for Veterans like Jorge Larios.

“I tried a lot of different other groups, and it didn’t work out,” he said. “One day I got recommended to come here to the recreation program with Tabitha. From day one, I’ve changed and improved. I’ve rediscovered myself as a person with the skills that started here in Island Dolphin Care.”

Squirt is one of the dolphins at Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Florida. She regularly works with Veterans enrolled in the Recreation Therapy Program at the Miami VA Healthcare System, which is the only VA health care system in the country using dolphins to help treat Veterans with physical and mental health conditions. The Veteran program at the dolphin facility is funded by public donations and grants, which allow Miami VA recreation therapists to work with Veterans and their families at no charge.

Veterans participate in the program once a month and have the option of going alone or with loved ones. A typical session includes learning about and swimming with dolphins, working on creative expression during artistic relaxation exercises, and enjoying barbeque lunches that are cooked and served by local volunteers. While in the water, Veterans can touch the dolphins, take rides from one side of the lagoon to the other while holding on to a dolphin’s dorsal or pectoral fins, play games and feed snacks to their new underwater friends.

Miami VA recreation therapists have been working with South Florida Veterans at the dolphin facility since 2009 and notice improvements in Veterans living with conditions such as PTSD, amputations, depression, anxiety, and traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries.

“A lot of the Veterans that I’m working with are dealing with depression [and] anxiety,” said Tabitha Aragon, recreation therapist at the Miami VA. “They are isolating themselves, either from loved ones or from the community as a whole. They have a lot of trust issues as well. So, coming down here really helps to kind of forget that stuff, leave that stuff behind. It gives them a chance to decompress.”

In addition to working with Veterans, the facility works with non-Veteran adults and children using “proven therapeutic methods and the newest assisted technologies designed to assist with sensory integration, fine and gross motor skills, language, communication, self-esteem and organizational skills.” A study published in the British Journal of Medicine found that using dolphins in therapy was effective in easing symptoms of depression after two weeks of treatment. But, Philip Admire, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran and director of zoology at Island Dolphin Care, doesn’t need a study to convince him of the effectiveness of this type of treatment—he sees the benefits every single day.

“When you see the change in the kids and adults who come here from Monday to Friday, it’s incredible,” he said. “Everyone has something they have to work on. The thing that helps them to focus, to catch that attention, and to help them focus is when these big, beautiful animals come over. It’s not something that happens every single day. And when they come over and sit in front of them, that’s when our attention just snaps in on them, and they are able to concentrate on what’s happening right there, at that moment. That’s one of the biggest things. That’s what really gets the therapy going and helps them move through the week.”

Admire served in the Marines from 1981 to 1992 and says he has a special place in his heart for working with Veterans.

“I never stopped being a Marine,” he said. “One of the things that brought me to this facility is the work that we get to do with Veterans, and that means so much to me to be able to do that.”

During a recent visit to the facility, Veterans shared their thoughts on the impact of incorporating dolphins in their treatments.

Jorge Larios, U.S. Navy Veteran

“From the moment that I jumped into the lagoon, I had started moving my legs, moving my arms again. The excitement of being with these animals for the first time woke me up.”

Since that first experience, he joined a gym and eventually lost 65 pounds. Even though he recently injured his wrist and has been gaining the weight back, he isn’t discouraged by the temporary setback. He said this type of therapy reminded him of the motivated person he used to be before serving his country.

“You feel like a kid again. You feel that innocence that you lose in the military. You find that person that you were before the military that I used to wish I could find.”

Larios served in an all-male unit in the Navy, which affected his social skills around females. Because most of the facility trainers and therapists are female, he said going to Island Dolphin Care helps him regain his social skills.

Karla Diaz, U.S. Army Veteran

When she was first invited to try this type of therapy, Diaz was scared and physically in pain. She occasionally has pains in her lower back and feet and didn’t know if she would even be able to participate. But, the gentleness of the dolphins helped put her at ease.

She’s been out to the facility several times now and has fallen in love with the experience. She is usually partnered with the dolphin Sarah and describes her as big and loveable.

“I completely recommend it. I think it’s one of the best things that we have out here that the VA has offered us. For me personally, it’s the best therapy I’ve had yet. If anyone is able to try it, they should.”

Diego Valdes, U.S. Navy Veteran

Valdes was a newbie to this type of therapy. Because he experiences anxiety and is “always in his head,” he’d been looking for new therapies to help him cope. His experience with the dolphin Bella helped him feel calmer and in less pain.

“They’re kind of larger than life. It’s an experience that I know I’m not going to get very often. You can’t really not pay attention when there is a 400-pound dolphin right there.”

Robert Shores, U.S. Army Veteran

Shores loves the water but had never swam with dolphins before. From the moment he stepped into the lagoon, he felt comfortable and calm. Now, he can’t wait to do it again.

“It’s a changing experience, and it can help you with anything you got going on that day. It’ll make you forget about it while you’re down there with the dolphins.”

Recreation therapy at the Miami VA

Aragon said using dolphins and animals in therapy is beneficial to Veterans who have trouble trusting other people. She encourages Veterans to seek help when they need it and consider the recreation therapy programs at the Miami VA Healthcare System.

“Animals tend to be very safe. The dolphins are trained extremely well with the staff that they have here at Island Dolphin Care, so that trust comes into play very quickly.”

Veterans interested in recreation therapy at the Miami VA should speak with their primary care team to request a consult. Recreation therapists will then evaluate the consult to determine if the Veteran would benefit from this form of therapy. For more information call 305-575-7000, ext. 4143, or visit www.miami.va.gov/services/Recreation.asp.

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