Our Stories: Bringing the fun to physiotherapy

Bringing the fun to physiotherapy

Melvin helping Putra through a circuit of cardio running.

When physiotherapist Melvin Loh was sourcing for easy-to-use weight training equipment for his clients’ physiotherapy sessions, he found that there were few options on the market. That was when he decided to create his very own!

From using a car tyre to a box packed with bottled water, Melvin has managed to breathe new life into everyday items and creatively engage with the students.

That ability to think out of the box has helped some of his clients thrive.

Venturing into physiotherapy

Melvin’s journey of how he came to be a physiotherapist is an equally colourful one.

He first developed an interest in the human anatomy and physiology, while studying biotechnology during his polytechnic years. Later, he learned lifesaving skills and was trained to assist people as a combat medic in the National Service.

When the Singapore Institute of Technology opened a physiotherapy course, Melvin decided to give it a try — since it combined his interests of learning about the human body and movement and helping people in their recovery journey.

Melvin had the chance to work with adults with special needs, during a three-month internship at one of the homes operated by Metta Welfare Association. As a therapy assistant, he planned simple exercises for his elderly clients, such as how to use the treadmill, stationary cycle, group aerobics and outings to the neighbourhood park.

“They were very happy seeing us every day… It was very enlightening and fun”, recalled the 29-year-old.

Initially, Melvin had considered the idea of venturing into community hospitals and elderly day-care centres. But life had different plans for him.

Coincidentally, MINDS Fernvale Gardens School (FGS) had an opening at the time, which was how Melvin began his career working with children with special needs.

Melvin at MINDS Fernvale Gardens School

At the start, Melvin acknowledges that he was quite clueless in interacting with young students with special needs.

An arguably simple task of sending the students into his physiotherapy room proved to be a challenging endeavour. Other behavioural issues that Melvin had to manage include the student’s refusal to participate in activities he had planned — some would verbally protest, while others would sit and refuse to move.

“Before taking on this role, I have not had the opportunity to interact with children. I don’t have nieces or nephews, and I didn’t know how to give instructions to children.”

Melvin sought advice from his supervisor and other physiotherapist colleagues. On top of that, his go-to source for information was from reading international research papers, sourcing for online blogposts on parents’ personal experiences and attending courses on how to engage children with autism in physical exercises.

“I read up a lot on conditions I may not be familiar with, such as Angelman syndrome… Sometimes I also read up research on how to treat specific conditions affecting the lower limbs or the spine, or about the different ways autism spectrum disorder can present”, he explained.

Over time, Melvin slowly began to get the hang of things and today, he is excelling at what he does.

Melvin assisting FGS student Putra through a session on weightlifting.

Creatively engaging the students

A typical day for Melvin can be packed with individual and group sessions. He usually sees four sessions in the morning and three sessions in the afternoon.

The students that come to him range from students with mobility issues, and who lack physical activity or who need help managing their weight.

Melvin’s strategy is to “start small and give them encouragement and motivation for making even the smallest achievements or improvements”, he says.

To engage reluctant students, Melvin will hold their hand, talk to them to share where they are going and what they are doing, and slowly guide them into the room.

He would also give the students the chance to choose their preferred activity and set a timer for it. While the timer is running, he would pre-empt them on what he needs them to do after the timer ends.

The goal is to “make things fun for them”, he says.

That is why he incorporates plenty of games into the physiotherapy session, where the students can kick bouncy balls, play with toys that make noise and emit light, and crawl through makeshift tunnels.

“I dial up my energy, hype myself up, make it very fun. Even though the student might not respond, it makes all the difference to them. I can see the excitement on their faces, and they are more likely to get engaged”, he said.

Melvin warming up with Putra before a 45-minute physiotherapy session.

Initially, Melvin considered using gym equipment but found that they were not suitable for students with special needs.

That was when he came up with the idea of using a car tyre with ropes attached to it, so the student could drag the tyre around to build up their strength and cardio.

He found that the tyre-pulling activity helps in some of the students’ regulation. Some colleagues got curious when they saw him carrying the tyre into the school compound and even borrowed it for their own classes, he recalled.

To teach the students how to lift heavy items safely from the floor, Melvin used an A4-sized box and loaded it with 1-litre bottles filled with water to act as weights.

He also simulated the experience of going to the supermarket and taught the students ways they could help their parents at home. For instance, he got the students to lift the filled water bottles to simulate the act of carrying grocery bags.

I dial up my energy, hype myself up, make it very fun. Even though the student might not respond, it makes all the difference to them. I can see the excitement on their faces, and they are more likely to get engaged.

Melvin Loh
Physiotherapist at MINDS Fernvale Gardens School

Seeing his clients’ progress

One of Melvin’s most memorable moments was seeing how Putra, a boy with autism, become more engaged in his physiotherapy sessions over time.

At the start, Putra would have many meltdowns, often getting triggered when he was told to do something he did not like. For instance, he detested having to take off or put on his shoes before and after the physiotherapy sessions.

With the interventions of Melvin, his teachers and other allied health professionals, Putra eventually overcame those hurdles.

A reward system also helped.

Using a visual aid, Melvin would indicate what activity the child would need to do, how many times to do it within a certain time, and that they would get a reward at the end. The rewards could range from receiving stickers to iPad time.

“Putra is always very excited when he knows there’s a mystery reward at the end of the session… He will keep reminding himself of the surprise as he does the exercises”, explains Melvin.

On the most rewarding aspect of being a physiotherapist, Melvin says it is when he sees students like Putra “readily stand up” whenever he arrives at their class to pick them up.

It is also when they accomplish the little achievements or improvements.

“It’s something as simple as holding on to the rails with one hand instead of both when walking down the stairs. Or walking for an extra minute on the treadmill for someone that would struggle and tries to get off after five minutes”, he says.

Going ahead, Melvin is focused on his goal on continuously learning and being exposed to new findings and innovative ways to conduct therapy sessions.

“What motivates me are the smiles on the students’ faces, which tells me that they enjoyed their time in therapy. I want to build their independence, safety awareness and their overall fitness. And for those with behaviour concerns such as sensory seeking needs, my goal for them is to reduce these behaviours through exercises and movements”, he says.

Allied Health Professionals play a vital role in helping our clients nurture the skills required to improve their quality of life. Learn more about our therapy services like physiotherapy here.

Read about how Occupational Therapists and Physiotherapists work together in another story.

Interested in making a difference in the lives of children and adults with special needs? Explore careers with MINDS here.

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NOTICE OF THE 59TH ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING OF MINDS: NOTICE is hereby given that the 59th Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) will be held by way of electronic means as follows: Date: Saturday , 18 September 2020 Time: 9:30am (Registration starts at 8:30am) Venue: Online via ZOOM MINDS members will be receiving an email on the notice of AGM and are strongly encouraged to register your attendance to facilitate the verification process on the day of the AGM. For enquiries regardingthe AGM, members may email to agm@minds.org.sg or call 849607358