Community | Therapy & Rehabilitation

For the second year, Susan Callis, recreational therapist with ECU Health, volunteered her time to serve as a swim partner in The Crossing on Aug. 12.

The one-mile event is held annually at Lake Gaston, and participants can swim, float, paddle or walk the distance to raise funds that support the Lake Gaston community.

Last year, Callis worked with Brent Carpenter, a former ECU Health outpatient, to help him swim the distance.

“It was his idea,” Callis said of participating in the swim event. “He grew up around Lake Gaston and knew about the event.”

Carpenter sustained a spinal cord injury 17 years ago after diving into a swimming pool, but Callis became more acquainted with him while he was participating in outpatient aquatic therapy after he broke his femur while water skiing.

ECU Health team members pose for a photo with former patients and friends after The Crossing event at Lake Gaston.

“I had observed him in outpatient therapy working on swimming and water safety skills to gain more strength and endurance,” Callis explained. After Carpenter was discharged from outpatient therapy, he continued to use the therapy pool and work with Callis to practice because he wanted to complete an open water swim. “This wasn’t a part of his therapy,” Callis said. “It was a personal goal, so I agreed to help him train to meet that goal. I wasn’t on the clock, but I chose to volunteer.”

Callis said her interest in aquatic therapy began after graduating from East Carolina University with a degree in recreational therapy, but she always loved the water.

“I grew up with a pool. I’m a water person. Most of my vacations are around the water,” Callis said.

During her first job after college, Callis took senior citizens to the local YMCA pool for exercise.

“I was not formally trained,” she admitted. “But I saw how free and happy the people were in the water and how they moved easier. I thought, ‘this is awesome.'”

From there, Callis found out about a water therapy conference in Washington, D.C. and her supervisor gave her the time off to attend. It was then she realized this was what she wanted to do. That confidence in her newfound passion led her to a job with ECU Health.

“I had a job but was looking to move back to Greenville,” Callis said. “I knew the hospital was building a pool facility and I asked the manager of the recreational therapy department what I needed to do to be eligible to apply for a job with them. He told me, and I went home and worked on those things. When it came time to apply for the job, I got it and I’ve been here ever since.”

That was in 1997, and Callis has been an essential player in ECU Health’s aquatic therapy.

“It was the right fit. I coordinate the aquatic therapy program and we’re fortunate to serve through the entire continuum of care, from acute to outpatient and community-based services,” Callis explained.

While she wasn’t initially looking to serve as an able-bodied swim partner in The Crossing, Callis said it’s been a good change of pace to her daily routine. This year, Callis agreed to be the able-bodied swim partner for an adult woman with cerebral palsy.

“Training her has challenged my problem-solving skills to help her be as independent as possible while improving her endurance,” Callis said. “When working with individuals with physical disabilities, the swim strokes are similar, but you have to adapt them to the diagnosis and the individual’s needs. I’ve had to figure out the logistics of things like getting my swim partner in and out of the lake, moving wheelchairs and coordinating volunteers. It’s fun because I’m training too!”

ECU Health team members pose for a photo after The Crossing event at Lake Gaston.

After last year’s success, this year, Callis helped coordinate five swimmers with physical disabilities to complete the event.

“With five swimmers, I needed help,” Callis said. She reached out to her team, and several were eager to help.

Kristin Jones, recreational therapist, Tasha Williams, clinical nurse specialist and Karen Pickles, physical therapist, also volunteered their time to help train and support the swimmers.

“Kristin and Karen were in the water to support the swimmers by paddle board and kayak, in addition to me,” Callis shared. “Tasha offered help with wheelchairs and transfers and cheered us on as we swam.”

That team support means a lot, but Callis said it’s not surprising that her colleagues jumped in to help.

“All of these swimmers except one have been our patients in some capacity over the years,” Callis explained. “It’s fulfilling to see a patient go from a new injury, when they’re at their most vulnerable, to having goals and flourishing. It’s nice to see it come full circle. These were once our patients, and now they’re our peers in the community.”

Callis added that while it’s rewarding the see a former patient thrive, she knows the value of them setting their own goals and putting in the work to reach them.

“The swimmers do this not because it was prescribed, but because it’s what they want to do,” she said.

Speaking about The Crossing after the event was completed, Callis said it was a huge success.

“All five swimmers completed their one-mile swim, and they were greeted on the other side by friends, family and their ECU Health family,” Callis said.

The date for next year’s event is already set, and Callis said that while she wants to help coordinate, she mostly wants to swim the one mile herself alongside the swimmers she’s helped train. In the meantime, Callis has other plans. Her next project is partnering with the city of Greenville to offer adaptive kayaking clinics. Whatever she does in the future, Callis said the work she’s done to support swimmers has been invaluable.

“It makes me happy,” she said. “It gives me such satisfaction, and reminds me that this is why I do what I do.”