Dolphin Therapy Helps Mute Israeli Teen Speak Again

By Michal Divon, NoCamels March 06, 2012 Comments

In September 2007, Morad Azva, a 16-year-old charismatic and popular boy, was brutally attacked by peers from high school in his village of Kalansua, Israel. The attack left him wounded not only physically, but mentally as well.

Morad became mute, closed off to the outside world and showed strong signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Morad’s parents sent him to be treated by Dr. Ilan Kutz, one of Israel’s leading psychiatrist in the field of post-trauma and the former director of the Psychiatric Services at Meir General Hospital in Kfar Saba. But the treatment, which consisted of both medication and psychiatric therapy, showed no signs of success.

“I haven’t seen that degree of severe [mutism],” said Dr. Kutz. “It usually lasts a few hours at most; never anything this long.” With zero progress, Kutz saw no purpose in continuing with therapy. In a medical report he suggested sending Morad to be hospitalized in a mental institution. Morad’s father, unwilling to give up on his son’s liberty, asked for another solution.

That’s when Dr. Kutz suggested an alternative medical treatment: dolphin therapy.

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The aim of the therapy, according to The Henry Spink Foundation that assists children with severe disabilities, is to “increase sensory activity” through the interaction with dolphins. Children are asked to swim, touch, feed, or pat the dolphins, known to be fond of human interaction. They are also known to be intelligent animals with a special sense for distress, the foundation says.

During the past few decades, dolphin therapy has become a popular alternative treatment, especially for children. Some of the patients treated with dolphin therapy include people with cancer, autism or cerebral palsy, and trauma victims such as Morad. Dolphin therapy was introduced as a medical treatment after the American anthropologist Dr. Betsy Smith saw the therapeutic effects of dolphins on her disabled brother.

Although the therapy does not ensure a full medical recovery, research found that after swimming with dolphins, blood samples included more endorphins.  According to Dr. Kutz, these changes are also reflected in the immune system. “The positive experience of their therapy is able to counter the state of stress prior to the treatment,” he explains.

Morad’s father packed his belongings, sold his horse farm and drove with Morad to Israel’s most southern city. The Dolphin Reef in Eilat seemed to be their final hope.

Dolphin Therapy Helps Mute Israeli Teen Speak Again

Morad with a dolphin at the reef

The Dolphin Reef is known to most Israelis as a tourist attraction. It offers hydrotherapy treatments, swimming, snorkeling and diving with dolphins. But every morning before the site opens to the public, therapy sessions take place. The Reef in Eilat gives away their time and expertise as a contribution to community. They ask patients to pay according to their ability, and creates a program suited to each individual’s needs.

Patients are treated for a year on average, but some may take as long as ten years to reach their goal. In Morad’s case, while progress was immediate, his treatment went on for four years before he was ready to return to his village.

Therapy sessions at the reef aim to retrieve one’s communication skills and trust. They include swimming sessions with the dolphins, ongoing interaction with the trainer, and verbalized communication over time. The second stage of the therapy aims to enhance the patient’s sense of responsibility. The patient is given an active role around the reef with daily duties such as preparing the dolphin’s meals and cleaning food buckets.

According to Sophie Donio, who developed Eilat’s dolphin therapy program over twenty years ago, Morad reacted to the dolphins instantly. “His entire body language changed the moment he saw the water and the dolphins,” she tells NoCamels. Donio, now writing her Master’s thesis on the experiences of eleven patients at the reef, believes that dolphin therapy proves itself time and again.

During his time at the Dolphin Reef, Morad regained his ability to communicate, first with dolphins and later on with people. A few months into therapy, he spoke his first words. “I felt like I was reborn,” he recalls, “The dolphins were my new family.” Morad flourished in his new surroundings. He became an active member of the reef and continued his experience with dolphins as a staff member.

Dolphin Therapy Helps Mute Israeli Teen Speak Again

Dolphin Boy poster

Dr. Kutz, who comes from conventional medical practice, stresses that despite the great progress, “it is important to keep in mind that not all of Morad’s problems have been dealt with.” According to him, “it took unbelievable patience, dedication, intimacy and love from all parties to restore a sense of security for Morad.”

Furthermore, Kutz emphasizes the importance of time as an essential element of the healing process. “I do not want Morad’s story to be perceived as neither miracle nor breakthrough,” he says.

Morad, who returned to his village, recently started studying hydrotherapy on a full scholarship. His story reached the ears of film directors Dani Menkin and Yonatan Nir, who decided to turn it into a documentary film. The film, Dolphin Boy, is currently being featured in the United States. It has also been featured in cinemas across Israel and Europe and is being used for academic purposes as a case study for psychology students.

Photos by Hadas Tzion, Dolphin Reef Eilat,  Amos Nacoum and Dolphin Boy film

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