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Professional dancer back on his toes after paralyzing spinal cord injury


WHEATON, Ill. -  After a terrifying fall, classically trained ballet and tap dancer Mauricio Fernandez almost had to put his dancing shoes away forever.  Physical therapists at Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton, Ill. tapped into Fernandez’s love of dance to help him recover from a serious spinal cord injury.

Fernandez tumbled down a flight of stairs in October 2022 when he leapt forward to catch his rambunctious new puppy. He landed headfirst, causing a traumatic spine injury and temporary paralysis of his arms and legs. He underwent emergency spinal decompression surgery to prevent further damage from the swelling. 

“I was conscious, but my first thought was where are my arms and legs,” said Fernandez, who lives in Lombard.

Maurico Fernandez teaches his therapists to danceWithin a week Fernandez was transferred to Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, where therapists incorporated dance moves into his recovery plan by using the ZeroG Gait and Balance Training System. The robotic body-weight support system is on an overhead track that helped Fernandez practice dance moves without the risk of falling. 

“When Mauricio came to Marianjoy he had extreme weakness in his arms and legs. He couldn’t move his fingers and had little movement in his right ankle and foot,” said Anita Kou, MD, medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital. “Mauricio was already motivated, and by including something he loves into his therapy, we’ve seen amazing progress and expect him to continue getting stronger over the next several months.”

The rapid up-and-down motion of tap dancing, which Fernandez started doing in a wheelchair, strengthened his leg and foot muscles. Once his balance improved, Fernandez moved to the parallel bars for ballet poses to strengthen his core and arms. When he was ready for more dynamic moves, the 50-foot track of the ZeroG gave him plenty of room for jumps and leaps.

“Dance is so familiar to Mauricio that by tapping into that muscle memory, it really helped his recovery,” said Julie Zell, PT, physical therapist at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital. “It made therapy fun. Mauricio even taught the staff a dance routine that we all did together.”

Marianjoy Mauricio Fernandez balletFernandez was discharged from inpatient therapy in late November 2022 and will continue outpatient therapy to work on returning to full form. Just two months after his accident, Fernandez went back to work teaching dance at a local studio in Countryside, Illinois.

“Dancing is my whole life. And while I may never get back to doing ballet lifts, the only solution is to keep putting my best foot forward every day,” said Fernandez. “I hope I can inspire my students to overcome barriers.”

To learn more about Northwestern Medicine, visit nm.org.


View Mauricio Fernandez SOTs
Mauricio Fernandez SOTs
View Mauricio Fernandez Interview (Spanish)
Mauricio Fernandez Interview (Spanish)
View Julie Zell, Physicial Therapist SOTs
Julie Zell, Physicial Therapist SOTs
View Mauricio Fernandez Dancing at Marianjoy B-Roll
Mauricio Fernandez Dancing at Marianjoy B-Roll
View Mauricio Fernandez Dancing and Teaching
Mauricio Fernandez Dancing and Teaching
View Mauricio Fernandez Therapy before ZeroG
Mauricio Fernandez Therapy before ZeroG