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Key college student takes steps toward recovery

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  • | 11:00 p.m. December 2, 2014
  • Longboat Key
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Humans are creatures of habit — but what happens when one morning, you wake up and realize your whole routine is no longer possible?

Michelle Donato, a lifelong dancer who grew up on Longboat Key, faced exactly that a year and a half ago, when doctors told her she might never walk again.

Donato, now 21, was a freshman at the University of Florida when she went to bed April 20, 2013 with a tingly feeling in her legs. Believing the sensation was normal, she went to bed without worry. She knew the next morning, however, that there was a problem.

“I didn’t have full movement in my legs,” Donato said. “I could still move them and put some weight on them, but when I climbed down my bunk, I knew something was wrong.”

Donato went to the emergency room at UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville. Within 12 hours, she had no feeling in her legs.

“For me, it wasn’t really about not walking but more about not dancing,” Donato, a dancer for 18 years, said.

She spent a week at Shands, and doctors were unable to diagnose her condition and feared the worst.

“The doctor said we needed to be prepared that she may never walk again,” Donato’s mom, Mary, said. “It was just a feeling of hopelessness being told we needed to get used to her being in a wheelchair the rest of her life.”

Through social media, Mary Donato discovered the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. The family traveled to Maryland and within three days, Donato was diagnosed with a spinal stroke. With the diagnosis, she could focus on what she needed to do to recover — and doctors told her they would do everything they could to help her walk again.

“That’s what she needed to hear, the doctor saying she will walk again,” Mary Donato said. “The attitude at Johns Hopkins is, ‘It’s all in your head, and you will walk again.’”

The family spent a month in Baltimore, where Donato was able to finish her semester. She took her final exams in a hospital bed, and one of her doctors acted as her proctor.

On May 12, Mother’s Day, Donato wiggled her right big toe for the first time.

“It was like we were having a party at Johns Hopkins,” Mary Donato said. “It was a good Mother’s Day.”
Donato returned to Johns Hopkins twice during summer 2013 for two weeks at a time, receiving therapy five days a week for three to four hours per day. She also became a patient at the Center of Recovery and Exercise (CORE) in Orlando.

In July, after spending three months in a wheelchair, Donato took her first steps and was able to walk with the help of crutches.

She saw her therapist in Orlando three times a week and slowly transitioned to once a week when the fall semester began. She now trains with her therapist, who travels to Gainesville once a week, in her apartment complex’s fitness center.

“What her therapy helps her the most with is adapting,” Donato’s father, John, said. “They put you in harnesses and manually move your legs so they try to get your brain to re-establish what it’s doing, sending a signal from the brain to the legs that you’re walking again.”

Donato currently walks with the help of walking sticks and says her walking has recovered about 70%. Her right leg has come back more quickly than her left side, which provides a challenge for the left-side-dominate Donato. She stays positive, however, and believes she can reach a full recovery.

“It feels really good because there’s a lot of people I know who have had this for years and years, and they haven’t progressed as much as I have so quickly,” she said.

Donato is now a junior and is majoring in finance and information systems. She plans to graduate on time in May 2016, and her dream is to work for a finance firm in London.

Although Donato cannot dance, she is still involved in the world of dancing. She currently serves as president at the UF’s Extreme Dance Company, a team of 110 members with varying levels of dance experience. In April, she choreographed seven dances for a recital.

“My ultimate goal is to be able to dance again, and I’m really determined,” Donato said. “This next semester, my therapist and I are trying to incorporate more dance into the workout so I can slowly start dancing again.”

Donato and her family believe her recovery has a lot to do with her strong mentality and perseverance.

“Her attitude has been incredible,” Mary Donato said. “She’s never gotten down about this. She’s just kept at it. She’s just had a belief that she’s going to conquer this, and I think that’s gotten her where she’s at today with really amazing progress.”