Houston spine surgeon with quadriplegia spreads hope after moving his arms

A prominent spine surgeon in Houston shares a huge milestone with us! He suffered a devastating injury in a bicycle crash at Memorial Park in 2019. It cracked his helmet, broke his back, and he was never expected to move his arms or legs again.

However, he has worked as hard as possible to change his fate and now he has! With a lot of determination and concentration, he is now able to move his arms.


We'll get to how that came about in a moment. But first, Dr. Marco's mission in life. He filled the incredibly important role of an oncologist and spine surgeon in Houston for several decades, becoming well-known around the world for helping transform the curved spines of scoliosis patients and being able to help patients with complicated tumors around their spines. 

When he wasn't saving or improving lives, the father of three grown boys, was busy supporting their childhood interests like baseball and snow skiing. Now, he would do anything to wrap his loving arms around his fourth child. He's confined to balancing him on his lap, since he's unable to feel his arms and legs.

"When I was injured, I thought if my body didn't recover on its own, that there is no way that science would ever find a cure for spinal cord injury. But my friend came to me and said, ‘no, we're going to raise money and we're going to find a cure for spinal cord injury’," states Dr. Marco.

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They did just that - raising more than a million dollars for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation! The late actor, Christopher Reeve, suffered a similar injury and constantly serves as Dr. Marco's inspiration. Dr. Marco is now the Chief Medical Ambassador for the foundation.

"Rex Marco is really a gift to the Reeve Foundation. He comes to us with the credible experience of being a neurosurgeon and operating on spinal cord injured patients. Now he's living with spinal cord injury and paralysis, so he can talk to us about what it's like to live as a high-level quadriplegic and the challenges that they face, and so he's spreading awareness. He's helping us with his perspective, and he's just an incredible voice for our community," states Maggie Goldberg, the President and CEO of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

Dr. Marco's positive attitude and effort have paid off, so let's get to how that milestone came about. It happened only a few months ago after witnessing his friend Alan Brown's success. Alan can move and use his hands for the first time in 34 years, after undergoing a clinical trial using a new spinal cord stimulator. Maggie explains what it is and how it works.

"We partnered with a company called Onward that's based in Switzerland and they had a clinical trial here in the U.S. and they had 65 participants. It's called a transcutaneous epidural stimulator, so, it's a stimulator that's placed on the skin, and it sends signals to the spinal cord," says Maggie.

Rex says it's incredible to see the difference in Alan and he didn't even have to have surgery! 

"He was able to grasp a jug of water and drink with it and it's amazing," exclaims Dr. Marco.

It gave Dr. Marco so much hope, it inspired him to the point that he was actually able to move his own hands for the first time in three years, but not with help from the stimulator. He did it through mind over matter.

"I tried to do that and I could feel my muscles that make my wrist go up. I could feel them move," explains Dr. Marco.

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With grit and plenty of determination, he did it. It takes a lot of hard work to make it happen, but he hopes it will continue to get better and that he'll continue to get stronger. He relies on his faith to keep him positive on the hard days, plus Dr. Marco tries to keep his overall body moving as much as physically possible.

"I got a lot of inspiration from Christopher because he talks about how much he exercised so that he could keep his heart strong and his muscles strong and that when a cure was found that his bones were ready and his joints were ready for him to stand and walk and move like he could before. I'm encouraged by his words because it takes about an hour and a half to get ready to exercise for 30 to 60 minutes. I used to just get up, and walk to a yoga studio," says Dr. Marco.

He also believes the dream for a cure for spinal cord injuries is no longer impossible, but inevitable, and a cure might look differently than what you'd imagine.

"We used to say 'the cure', and the cure meant standing, stepping, and walking and now we have a different perspective. Spinal cord injury is not just about stepping. It's about blood pressure, temperature control, it's about bowel, bladder, sexual control, all of those things. We can cure one of them. Each of those is a cure and treatment. So we're now talking about treatments - plural," states Maggie. She believes we're on the cusp of huge advances, with the spinal cord therapy possibly available next year.

Dr. Marco is still very active in the medical industry and serves as a Clinician, Investigator, and Teacher for Houston Methodist Hospital, continuing to help others with spinal issues, who can now relate to him better than ever.

For more information, https://www.christopherreeve.org