By Brian Ross
In July 2008, Orillia teenager Tyhme Thompson suffered a serious spinal cord injury, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down. After being airlifted to St. Mike’s Hospital in Toronto, she underwent extensive surgeries on her spine, and was fitted with permanent titanium rods and plates, which restrict her body movements.
The incredible story of this former swimmer, swim instructor and lifeguard touched many hearts, and ultimately inspired members of the pool and spa industry to give Tyhme the pool of her dreams.
An inspiring story
As the reality of their daughter’s limitations was sinking in, Tyhme’s parents needed to make their home as accessible as it could be. Like all parents, their first consideration was to get the best medical care for their child, and then get her back home.
Although learning to cope in a wheelchair was required, Tyhme is determined to work towards some degree of recovery. She puts herself through exercise programs every day, and attends daily therapy sessions in Barrie and Orillia and has travelled to California for intensive month-long rehabilitative muscle-regeneration programs. Progress is painfully slow, but it’s progress nonetheless.
With her history in swimming, Tyhme has always known about the benefits of water-based exercise. Unfortunately, given her condition, she requires a water temperature of roughly 33°C (91°F), or her back muscles go into spasms. These temperatures are obviously not available in public swimming pools. While she is allowed one hour per week in the therapy pool in Barrie’s Royal Victoria Hospital, it is not enough for any real degree of recovery. The Thompson’s backyard pool could be adjusted for temperature, although Tyhme could not access it on her own and the depths and slopes did not work for therapy purposes.
Finding a new home
It is rare to see a house readily able to accommodate a wheelchair, and the Thompson house was no exception. Alterations included ramping, doorways, accessible washrooms and bedrooms and countless other small details. These modifications were completed in 2008 after the accident, to allow Tyhme to get around the house, but the changes were limited by the home’s architectural specifications.
A very independent woman, Tyhme is determined to become more self-sufficient. To this end, her parents came to understand their home would never help her realize her goals. They began to look at moving to a house that would allow the creation of an apartment, one that could be fully accessible. After much searching, a house was found that would meet these needs. However, there was no funding for the therapy pool that Tyhme would need.
This is when Pool Spa Sauna Showroom (PSSS) in Orillia, Ont., decided to step up and lend a hand, putting together a coalition of suppliers, local trades and its own construction staff. The result was a $60,000 therapy pool, built entirely free of charge for this amazing young lady.
Determining design details
Everything about this pool’s unique design was done in close consultation with Tyhme, taking into consideration both her present requirements and future development. The pool was designed for her to accommodate a full range of therapy and exercises. PSSS staff worked closely with Tyhme to refine the project’s various design details. Depths, slopes, circulation system, point of entry, access to pump and heater controls, even chemical and maintenance requirements—everything was designed to allow Tyhme to use and look after the pool herself and maintain her much sought-after independence.
Shape and permits
After the initial site inspection, a few issues had to be addressed with the building department. Besides the usual property line setbacks, there is a small manmade canal along the back of the yard. Before work could begin, the department needed to determine whether setbacks from waterlines would be an issue. This is where it is helpful to have good relationships with building departments.
An application was drawn for a permit to build a ‘therapy pool,’ rather than a swimming pool. The property lines and the need to design the pool with three incremental depths dictated the pool’s unusual shape. The rear yard setback became a non-issue and a permit was granted for the desired location.
Entry and access
The initial challenge was to create an entry Tyhme could enter, exit and use entirely on her own. She determined the elevation that worked best for a transfer from her wheelchair and the space that would be required to accommodate her. Her wheelchair needed to be 457 mm (18 in.) lower than the top of the steps. A ramp was incorporated into the plans to allow Tyhme to travel by wheelchair from the pool deck to the lower step area. It was also determined that a triangular, or wedge-shaped, deck seat at one side of the steps would be the best option for entry and exit.
It was also critical that this area be very smooth, without being slippery. When the ‘ledge’ portion of the deck by the steps was poured, a recessed area allowed for tile to be inlaid later. As Tyhme has no feeling below her chest, it was also essential there be nothing that could cut or scratch her. A step unit with three 1.2-m (4-ft) wide treads worked best, as they would allow Tyhme to reach each side of the steps to help herself in and out of the water. A handrail was discussed, but dismissed as it would be in the way.
To enter the pool, Tyhme backs her wheelchair to the side of the steps, locks the brakes, then transfers herself to the tiled area. Once seated on the pool deck beside the steps, she can lift her legs around and onto the step treads. Then, step by step, she shuffles (or ‘bums,’ as she calls it) her way down into the pool.
The pool entry depth is 1 m (3 ft) with two very gradual slopes—the first to 1.2 m (4 ft) and the second to 1.5 m (5 ft). At the 1.2-m depth, Tyhme can pull herself towards the pool’s walls, where her knees touch the wall and straighten her legs. She refers to this as ‘locking her knees.’ She can then put weight on her legs and exercise.
In this area of Severn Township, excavation revealed clay and swamp-like ‘bog.’ Having built numerous times under these conditions, designers opted for the proven process of creating a solid load-spreading concrete base for the pool, with a great deal of concrete, reinforced with steel mesh and rebar. Normal construction procedures followed, including setting up steel walls and pouring the base into concrete, but using 50 per cent more concrete than usual, as the base ground conditions were less than ideal. The pool floor was then shaped; again, considerations were taken to account for ground conditions through the use of crushed stone, reinforcing, and additional concrete thickness.
Construction began the first week of June and was 80 per cent finished by the end of the month. The team wanted Tyhme to see the pool full of water before she left for another rehabilitation stint in California in July.
Two thirds of the pool’s perimeter has a traditional concrete deck, with a broom-swept finish for traction to make it safer for Tyhme’s wheelchair and other bathers. The remaining deck area is 457 mm (18 in.) lower to accommodate the step entry and ledge, which runs along one side of the pool to allow Tyhme to lift herself out of the water, where she can rest and sunbathe on the smooth concrete. Large Muskoka rocks were placed as steps at either end of the lower deck.
The air-entrained concrete (intentionally creating tiny air bubbles to increase the hardened concrete’s durability) deck is reinforced with steel mesh; fibremesh was also included in the mix. The outside perimeter of the deck is 178 mm (7 in.) thick with a 12.7-mm (0.5-in.) rebar rod, creating a ‘grade beam.’ This helps keep the concrete from separating and/or heaving to different elevations. The rest of the upper level deck concrete is 101 mm (4 in.) thick. Reverse A-frames were also included as part of the deck support system, with sonotubes in selected areas as well.
The lower deck is the same general design as the upper deck. It is supported off the pool walls by shorter reverse A-frames. It also has steel mesh, fibremesh and rebar, but it is 152 mm (6 in.) thick throughout. When it was poured, it flowed into the gussets of the steel walls. Then the stone wall, supporting the concrete ledge, was positioned directly on top of the reverse A-frames.
Allan Block Junior (retaining wall system) was used to support the ledge concrete. Allan Block is usually dry-stacked and each successive course steps back from the first. In this application, a vertical wall was desired, without the stepping. The blocks were mortared together and their keys filled with concrete; short rebar rods were inserted into the keys to bond the courses together. When the ledge was poured, rebar rods spanned from the Allan Block keys to the top of the pool’s steel walls.
Ramping was required to allow Tyhme full access around the pool, all of which was kept to 1:12 slope. One ramp leads from the porch lift to the pool area, while another leads from the pool sitting area down to ‘Tyhme’s side’ of the pool steps. River rock was placed between these two levels to keep water from the pool-level deck from flowing across the lower ramp.
A concrete walkway to the front of the house was also poured. Tyhme’s house elevator can let her off at the garage, allowing her to wheel around to the pool directly from her apartment. If she chooses to go through the main part of the house, onto the rear deck, a porch lift can lower her wheelchair to pool level.
The fence along the property line beside the pool was built with a wood privacy design for 80 per cent of its length, before switching to black chain-link. This provided not only privacy, but also a windbreak. The chain link allowed for a continued view of the natural wildlife setting surrounding the yard (the house backs onto a small manmade canal). There is a house immediately across the canal, so a small privacy pergola was built to allow Tyhme to be able to relax or entertain friends.
All of the pool’s mechanical equipment is on a concrete pad directly alongside the walkway beside the garage. A dual-thermostat gas heater beside the concrete walkway allows Tyhme to easily increase the temperature when she is going to swim (it is otherwise maintained at a lower setting). An ultraviolet (UV) water treatment system reduces chemical requirements; the automatic chemical feeder is also handily located beside the concrete walkway. The equipment was selected and positioned so Tyhme can operate it easily from her chair. A robotic cleaner allows her to look after the cleaning herself.
For the winter, a safety cover was installed. The anchors for the cover are in their usual location at the upper deck area. By the steps and sun ledge, the anchors are in the side of the block wall, keeping the ledge and entry area perfectly smooth.
A worthwhile effort
Local media, newspaper, radio, and television picked up on the story and made the public aware of this very special project being carried out by so many members of the pool and spa industry.
Most importantly, Tyhme and her family were grateful beyond words. When she returned from her therapy stint in August, Tyhme’s pool was complete. She began to use it immediately, for hours each day.
“It’s the first time I’ve been able to get in and out of a pool on my own since the injury,” she said. With that simple statement, all those involved could officially declare this unique project a success.
Author note: This project was completed with the generous participation of the following Ontario companies: Highbury Pools Ltd. (London), Northeastern Swimming Pool Distributors (Vaughan), Megna Pools (Pickering), Zodiac Pool Systems Canada Inc. (Oakville), Consolidated Pool & Spa Industries (Woodbridge), Hinspergers Poly Industries (Mississauga), Rheem Canada Ltd. (Brampton), Backyard Brands (Markham), The Sarjeant Co. (Barrie), Champlain Ready Mix Inc. (Orillia), RONA Inc. (Orillia), G.H Stewart Const. Inc. (Orillia), Mid North Mechanical (Orillia), Atlas Block Co. Limited (Orillia), Area Fencing (Orillia), Simcoe Fence Ltd. (Elmvale), Bill Meyers (Southampton) and the construction and service staff of Pool Spa Sauna Showroom. Their contributions are very gratefully acknowledged; without their assistance, this pool could not have been built.
Brian Ross, founder of Pool Spa Sauna Showroom (PSSS), a family-owned and operated business with locations in Orillia and Huntsville, Ont., has been involved in the swimming pool industry since 1968. Ross is a certified American Concrete Institute (ACI) field testing technician and a certified pool operator (CPO). He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.