AMI, Ibaraki -- For one relative newbie to life in a wheelchair, taking part in a wheelchair basketball program has given him back his enthusiasm for life.
Koichi Abe, 26, of Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, is undergoing job training for work that can be done sitting down, while also going to wheelchair basketball practice three times a month at a gymnasium at Ibaraki Prefectural University of Health Sciences.
In November of 2014, Abe ran a high fever, and was later diagnosed with an illness related to the spinal cord. He became paralyzed from the waist down, and began using a wheelchair.
It was when he was still an in-patient at Ibaraki Prefectural University of Health Sciences Hospital in October of 2015, and feeling down about his condition, that a physical therapist invited him to take part in wheelchair basketball practice on a trial basis.
"Men who were older than me and girls who looked to be in junior high were able to get the ball to the basketball hoop, but I couldn't," Abe recalls of that first session. He felt frustrated and was confronted head-on by the reality of his physical state. Still, he refused to give up and continued going to practice.
Abe, who was discharged from the hospital in April of this year, says that if it hadn't been for basketball, he probably would've become a shut-in.
The wheelchair basketball program at Ibaraki Prefectural University of Health Sciences was started in 2009 by Kaori Tachibana, an associate professor at the university and head coach of Japan's women's national wheelchair basketball team, along with a student group called Ibaraki Sitting Sports for Everyone (ISE). The number of participants has been growing ever since. Starting in fiscal 2015, they launched a program for in-patients at nearby hospitals in which patients are encouraged to start playing sports as soon as they can.
When those who develop disabilities due to illness or injury are discharged from the hospital, they often become so overwhelmed just trying to adapt to their new lives that going out feels too challenging. Having patients become familiar with sports and accustomed to moving their bodies while they're still in the hospital gives them a reason to go out once they're discharged, professor Tachibana explains.
Since the implementation of nursing care insurance in 2000, the duration of hospital stays have effectively been cut back. The measure was intended to prevent seniors from being hospitalized in place of being provided with nursing care, but it has meant that patients that would have been allowed to stay in the hospital for a year or longer in the past are now commonly discharged at a maximum of eight months from the time of injury.
"Most people nowadays find it hard to build up to a fitness level that allows them to play sports," says Chika Uemura, who suffered an injury to her spinal cord at 18 and participated in five consecutive Paralympics up through the 2004 Games in Athens. "I was in the hospital for a year. Back then, we were taught and trained how to get back in a wheelchair in case that we fell off and no one was around to help. Now, you get discharged from the hospital as soon as you learn how to move from your wheelchair to your bed."
Yasuyoshi Wadano, the director of Ibaraki Prefectural University of Health Sciences Hospital, who accompanied Japan's Paralympic delegation in 2000 to the Sydney Games says, "Under the current circumstances, patients are discharged before their rehabilitation is complete. But because we're under pressure to keep medical costs down, it's difficult to prolong the duration of hospital stays. That's why it's so important to encourage patients to begin engaging in sports while they're still in the hospital, and to nurture physical and occupational therapists who can support such efforts."