Free swim class at Detroit YMCA helps children with bleeding disorders

Researchers to monitor if swimming improves children's joint health

DETROIT – At first glance, it looks like the start of any other swim class, but there's some extra excitement mingling with the smell of chlorine in the air for children at the Boll Family YMCA, in Detroit.

Three beaming little boys bounced through the showers. One of their moms struggled to adjust their brand-new goggles. They were soon joined by more families. Parents snapped photos with their phones. Most kids were smiling, while others looked a little anxious.

One child asked if there were fish in the pool. He was quickly reassured that there were not.

"Are we ready to go swimming?" one of the organizers asked.

"Yes!" the kids said in a chorus.

They started with the basics.

"Can you put your face in the water?" the instructor asked. "Good. Can you blow some bubbles?  Perfect!"

There were 15 kids in attendance, ranging in age from 3 to 14.

All of them are living with a bleeding disorder called hemophilia and are used to being told they're not allowed to do what other kids can.

"It really hurts when you see kids that can do stuff while your child is, like, limited to do it," said Nada Ilayan, of Dearborn Heights. "That really breaks my heart."

Ilayan has two children in the class, Ibrahim, 4, and Serene, 3.

Serene doesn't like to get her face wet in the shower, but she was in a pool, blowing bubbles.

Ilayan watched nervously from the pool's edge. Everyone understood her anxiety.

"These kids have very unique needs that you have to watch out and be very careful," said Annie Phillips, a bleeding disorder social worker at Children's Hospital of Michigan. "We're always all worried about our kids all the time, and having hemophilia puts (another) layer on top of that. There's just another layer of stress that these parents have to deal with."

Hemophilia prevents the blood from clotting normally. A seemingly minor injury can cause a painful bleed into a joint. More serious injuries can cause life-threatening internal bleeding.

The condition prevents children from playing contact sports. That often leaves them sitting on the sidelines.

"Are we ready to try some kicking?" the instructor asked. "Great."

The class was inspired by an experience that Phillips had while working at Camp Bold Eagle, the Hemophilia Foundation of Michigan's northern Muskegon County summer camp for children with bleeding disorders.

"I noticed that a lot of kids from our center in Detroit did not know how to swim," Phillips said. "They have to pass this big swim test at camp and other kids were passing it, and kids at our center were not."

It was distressing because swimming is a perfect activity for children with hemophilia.

Phillips applied for a grant from the National Hemophilia Foundation and partnered with Detroit Swims, a program at the Boll Family YMCA devoted to teaching children how to swim that might not otherwise have the opportunity.

"These kids need this, so it's a perfect opportunity to give them the gift of swimming that we teach on a daily basis," said Julie Koroly, the regional director of aquatics for YMCA in Metro Detroit. "This is a perfect place for them to exercise and truly be a kid."

The partnership extends beyond free swim lessons. It's also a research project.

Researchers from Children's Hospital will be monitoring the kids to see if swimming improves their joint health and quality of life.

Young adults with hemophilia from the Hemophilia Foundation of Michigan are also helping out with the program, serving as mentors and role models.

J. Luckey, 23, from Ann Arbor, is one of those mentors.

"I really did not want to learn how to swim at first, but then I did and learned to enjoy it, and it felt great.  My joints feel good; my elbows and stuff," Luckey said. "It ended up coming in invaluably. I saved a kid from drowning once. I'm glad I learned."

Back in the pool, Ibrahim practiced his kicks. He narrowly avoided bumping his head on the pool edge. The instructor noticed and puts her hand in the spot to avoid another close call. His mom nodded in appreciation.

"If I was going to take him somewhere else for a swimming lesson, other coaches are not going to understand," Ilayan said.

As the first class drew to a close, the smiles were big and the hopes were high.

"I am hoping that they take on swimming, and it becomes something that they love and a sport that they can play in high school or middle school," Phillips said. "I am very grateful and happy."

"I hope by the end of this program, they learn how to swim. I really do," Ilayan said. "And they can show their other friends that they can do that."