MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Deep into aquarium waters, a new type of therapy to treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries is emerging. Veterans have been swimming with stingrays and sharks for therapy at aquariums for nine years. Now, Ripley's Aquarium of Myrtle Beach is joining the club.
The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta rolled out the Veteran's Immersion Program in 2008. It's been highly successful and has gained esteem among veterans for its therapeutic benefits. Aquatic therapy has been featured in the New York Times, Fox News and other publications. Lou Krieger of Myrtle Beach found out about the program that way, and decided he needed to bring it to Ripley's Aquarium.
"The excitement is really overwhelming. We discussed it at our PTSD group meeting yesterday. It's like high anxiety from everybody waiting to get in here and come in the pool and inter-mix with the sting rays and sharks. It's going to be something that's just totally awesome, and it's an alternative form of treatment that we're really looking forward to," Krieger said.
Current medical treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder isn't the most popular among veterans. Options include medications and controlled re-experiencing of the trauma, known as exposure therapy. According to the New York Times, many veterans won't complete their prescribed therapy, but many groups of veterans are turning to other types of treatment, usually involving animals.
Bethany Marshall works at the aquarium. She said she first received Krieger's request for PTSD treatment around Christmas. She said Ripley's Aquarium jumped on the opportunity to help, and read up on aquatic therapy articles. Marshall said the Myrtle Beach veterans to participate in the program will swim in the 'Stingray Experience' tank with various stingray and non-threatening shark species, including a nurse shark.
"It's just the overall atmosphere of the aquarium...the silence...it's just something we're really looking forward to, and I think it'll be beneficial for everyone who jumps in the tank," Krieger said.
Four Myrtle Beach area veterans are taking the first plunge on April 5. They'll get in the water before the aquarium opens. Much of the purpose of aquatic therapy is silence and calm water. One veteran who experienced the Veterans Immersion Program in Atlanta said seeing the sea animals in their habitats reinforces the value of life after trauma.
Krieger said for his group, they all paid $5 to enter a lottery to choose who would attend the first therapy session. However, both Krieger and Marshall agree this will be the first of many therapy sessions for the PTSD group. Marshall stressed while using the stingrays and sharks as therapy is new to the aquarium, the 'Stingray Experience' is an established visitor's program.
Krieger said Ripley's Aquarium is volunteering their time to help out. In return, the veterans plan to volunteer for the aquarium. Most of the veterans in the therapy session are Vietnam vets, Krieger said. He hopes to gain more Iraq and Afghanistan vets in the group. He said any veterans who would like to join his PTSD group, or start participating in therapy swims, should contact him via email. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Web extra: Watch a Facebook Live stream of Meredith swimming with the sharks and rays for this story below: