PALS gives swim lessons to kids undergoing long-term treatment

A day at the pool is nothing special for most kids, but for a child undergoing long-term medical treatment, it can make all the difference.

Since its Jan. 30 launch, the Duke Pediatric Aquatic Life Skills program has been providing such children with the opportunity to learn how to swim every Sunday at the pool in Brodie Recreation Center on East Campus.

“What I love most about the program is that no one asks questions about why the children are there. The children, parents and instructors alike all know that the kids are there because of a hospital recommendation, but when 4 [o’clock] on Sunday hits, they’re there to learn to swim and have fun,” sophomore Corinne Merriman wrote in an e-mail.

Merriman is one of 22 volunteer instructors currently involved with the program, which has an average attendance of six to eight children each Sunday. In order to participate in swimming lessons, the children must receive medical approval from their health care provider at Duke Children’s Hospital.

Program Director Vinayak Nikam, a junior, said he was inspired to start Duke PALS by his best friend’s little sister, who, while struggling with leukemia, turned to swimming to cope with her condition.

“I saw [the therapeutic values of swimming] firsthand and decided that I would bring this kind of benefit to the kids at Duke Children’s [Hospital],” Nikam wrote in an e-mail. “It’s been quite a journey, but seeing the kids come every day with a smile on their faces and leaving feeling better is definitely an inspiration to keep going.”

When creating the program, Nikam collaborated with both Duke Children’s Hospital and the University’s recreation department. However, before the program was approved, he faced several challenges regarding liability issues and making sure the kids were comfortable and safe during swimming sessions, Nikam said.

“These kids are restricted in so many ways—having a serious disease like cancer can be physically and mentally draining, especially for an 8-year old,” he wrote. “But our program gives them the opportunity to be themselves, in a fun environment.”

Volunteers, a majority of whom have a swimming background, must apply to the program and undergo both hospital volunteer training and PALS instructor training before conducting swimming lessons.

“I have had a lot of experience in the water as a swimmer, lifeguard and swim instructor,” wrote sophomore Connor Lennard, another volunteer instructor, in an e-mail. “For me, PALS is a fantastic opportunity to make a difference sharing what I love. If I can influence one kid to be hooked on swimming like I was, that would be the best reward.”

In addition to students, recreation administrators have also expressed their appreciation for Duke PALS.

“I think [Duke PALS] is awesome. I think it has great potential,” said Felicia Tittle, managing director of Duke Campus Recreation. “[It is] what recreation is about; it’s about being inclusive, and I think that’s exactly what this program is doing.”


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