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.
Within 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.”
Fernandez 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.”
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Manager, Media Relations - Central DuPage, Palos, Delnor, Kishwaukee, and Valley West Hospitals, Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, and NM Proton Center
- Mauricio Fernandez Professional Ballet PortraitMauricio Fernandez has danced in professional ballet companies around the world.
- Mauricio Fernandez Tap DancingMauricio Fernandez has danced professionally around the world.
- Mauricio Fernandez DancingMauricio Fernandez displays some dance moves.
- Mauricio Fernandez Ballet DancingA portrait of Mauricio Fernandez from the Kentucky Ballet Theatre.
- Mauricio Fernandez Professional Ballet DancerMauricio Fernandez has danced professionally around the world.
- Mauricio Fernandez and his puppyMauricio Fernandez cuddles his new puppy.
- Mauricio Fernandez after his accidentMauricio Fernandez suffered partial paralysis following a fall down the stairs.
- Mauricio Fernandez on the Zero GPhysical Therapist Julie Zell, PT, guides Mauricio Fernandez as he dances with the support of the ZeroG at Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, as student Noah Alexander, PT, observes.
- Maurico Fernandez teaches his therapists to danceMauricio Fernandez teaches his therapists Julie Zell, PT, and Noah Alexander, PT, a few dance moves at Northwestern Medicine Rehabilitation Hospital.
- Mauricio Fernandez in therapy at MarianjoyMauricio Fernandez practices walking using the ZeroG at Northwestern Medicine Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, with the help of physical therapist Julie Zell, PT, and Noah Alexander, PT.