Water has had both a negative and a positive effect on Bonnie Clendaniel's life.
It was while taking a bath in 1973 that the Catonsville resident was struck with a sudden paralysis from the neck down. The diagnosis was multiple sclerosis, and with it came grim words from a doctor to "find a comfortable wheelchair and be prepared to stay in it," she said.
But in 1978, she got some other advice from a nurse at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions: Get a swim suit.
Not content to wait until the progressive disease incapacitated her, Clendaniel, 56, took up swimming as a way of strengthening her muscles -- and she started a swim program at the Western Family YMCA in Catonsville for people with MS.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system in which the outside coating of the nerves is damaged, and the resulting scarring prevents the transportation of messages from the brain. No cure has been found, and people stricken with MS deal with many problems, including paralysis, poor coordination, fatigue and depression.
The swim program run by Clendaniel since 1980 uses aqua-therapy to keep the muscles of MS patients loose.
A group of about 70 volunteers -- many from the Shriver Center volunteer program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County -- helps 30 to 40 patients in a wide age range move and massage their limbs.
The patients must avoid heat, which slows the neurological system, posing a problem in exercising. But the program's water aerobics allows them to remain cool while getting a needed workout.
Clendaniel is quick to point out that while the program can't stop the course of the disease, it has helped her and many others stay limber and feel good about themselves.
"There is a warmth that runs through your body, and the water relaxes you," said Clendaniel, who is able to walk unaided most days. "It feels good to be with other people who understand your disease and know what you are going through."
"What a person with MS comes away from the program with is a feeling that they have been treated like human beings," Clendaniel added. "This disease robs you of so much."
Every Friday afternoon, the group meets for an hour of fun in the water -- followed by a social.
The gathering resembles a pool party as participants laugh and swap stories. One recent afternoon, Jim Newell, one of two volunteer instructors, gently massaged and kneaded in the water the stiff limbs of Wayne Wilson, diagnosed with MS in 1991.
"He works me out hard," Wilson said later, high-fiving Newell over cookies at the social. "I have my regular family and then I have these guys, my MS family."
Sue Kiefer, 82, is another volunteer. For her, the swim program is a way to do for others what she cannot do for a daughter who has the disease but lives in North Carolina.
Kathy Carmine recently visited the group after a long absence. She had joined the program five years ago but had stopped attending because of ill health.
"I sure did miss everyone," Carmine said, smiling in her wheelchair near the pool. "When you're not around, people call you -- not because they are being nosy, but because they care."
The program is supported by grants from United Support Against Multiple Sclerosis and the National MS Society.
For Clendaniel, whose disease forced her to stop working years ago, it's not only a program but a mission.
"This is not the career I envisioned for myself, but there is such a feeling of satisfaction from helping others," the former medical technician said. "You can't beat that kind of pay."
Pub Date: 8/15/96