Children's Healthcare of Atlanta patients swim with 'gentle giants'

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Standing above the Georgia Aquarium's Ocean Voyager habitat, 13-year olds Julie Hensley and Anna Harbin are suited up and ready to take the plunge.

"I was kind of nervous at first, I ain't gonna lie," Hensley admits about being a part of the "Journey with the Gentle Giants Swim program."

Paired their physical therapists from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Day Rehab program, and guided by members of the Georgia Aquarium dive team, the girls will spend the next half hour swimming in a football field-sized habitat, filled with 6.3 million gallons of water. They'll be surrounded by 40-foot long whale sharks, giant manta rays, and thousands of other fish.

"I was like, 'Mom I am not doing this,'" Julie Hensley says.  "She talked me into it."

Because this is nothing compared to what these girls have already faced. Julie, from East Tennessee, was temporarily paralyzed when her blood pressure dropped dramatically during surgery for scoliosis.

Anna, from Valdosta, Georgia, suffered a traumatic brain injury, in a car accident.

Laurelle Scheib, a physical therapist in Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's day rehab program, says these teens have spent months working 6 hours a day, trying to regain some of the function they've lost.

"When I first started with these kids, they were barely walking, getting out of bed," Scheib says. "Now, they're swimming freely, walking all over the place."

Wearing wetsuits and snorkeling masks, the teens, therapists and divers are surrounded by curious sharks and manta rays. I was excited, but, when I was in the water and saw them, I was, like, 'Okay, don't touch me -- I'm good," Hensley laughs. Her hands are still weak, but in the weightlessness of water, Hensley realizes that doesn't matter.

"I was holding onto Julie the entire time, guiding her through the water," Scheib says.  "As a physical therapist, that just brought so much joy to my heart, to see her have so much joy in this experience, and that I could help her physically do that."

For 30 minutes, they float with the largest sharks in the world, who, turns out eat plankton, and love people. Laurelle Scheib and Julie Hensley swam together.

"They were tapping into us a little bit and she started laughing," Scheib says. "I could hear her laughing underneath the water."

"The first time I saw one up close, I was so scared," Hensley says. "But, I was like, I'll give it a shot.  My mom told me they bumped me 3 or 4 times and I didn't even feel it."

When it's all over, Hensley and Harbin are smiling, ready to do it again.

"It was amazing," Julie Hensley says.  "I loved it.  I definitely want to try again sometime."