Isanusi Garcia Rodriguez has been dancing since he was a little boy in Havana. His talent brought him to Miami City Ballet, where he has been one of the troupe’s most charismatic and powerful performers for much of the last decade.
But when Rodriguez woke up in Mount Sinai Medical Center in January, unable to move or speak after a ruptured brain aneurysm nearly killed him, his life and identity as a superbly accomplished dancer were gone, leaving him frustrated and uncomprehending that his body wouldn’t do what he wanted it to.
“It was like I was a little kid in Cuba, and I want to dance but I can’t,” says Rodriguez, his tall frame folded into a small couch at the Miami Beach apartment he shares with his girlfriend, MCB dancer Christie Sciturro. “I’d say, ‘Where’s my Mom?’ I didn’t know where I was.”
“The doctors didn’t think he was going to make it,” says Sciturro. “And they said it might be better if he didn’t,” implying that if Rodriguez did survive, he would be severely impaired.
Six months later, Rodriguez, 36, has defied his doctors’ expectations. He is walking, swimming, stretching, even doing some tentative dance steps. He can talk and understand much of what’s said to him, although words and meanings still slip away from him, suddenly and maddeningly, leaving him clutching and shaking his head in frustration.
As far as he has come from where he was seven months ago — mute and half paralyzed, struggling to make a sound or stand up — Rodriguez is a long way from where he wants to be.
“I love to dance,” Rodriguez says. “I have to dance. I have to. Even if it’s just one more time.”
However, he has used his insurance policy’s limit of 20 sessions of speech and physical therapy. The ballet kept Rodriguez on salary until his contract expired in May though he couldn’t dance. Now Sciturro, 26, is paying for twice-weekly speech therapy and his health insurance out of her salary. She has launched a crowd-funding campaign at gofundme.com that has so far raised about a tenth of the $10,000 the couple say is needed for Rodriguez’s treatment.
Dr. Roberto Heros, a University of Miami neurosurgeon at Jackson Memorial Hospital, says getting therapy early and continuously is crucial for someone in Rodriguez’s situation. An aneurysm is a bubble that forms in a weak spot in an artery, and a rupture can be fatal. The cause is unknown, although stress, high blood pressure, sudden and intense physical activity and genetics are thought to play roles.
“The brain has some capacity to recover, and most of that is in the first six months, but it is ongoing for as much as a year,” says Heros, who did not treat Rodriguez but is known nationally for his experience in treating aneurysms. “After a certain period of time, six, eight, 10 months, there may not be any more neurological recovery. … If part of the brain dies it’s gone, it doesn’t regenerate. But there are other areas of the brain that have the potential to take over, and they can be trained.”
Training, talent and determination have taken Rodriguez far. He grew up in Havana, where he trained at the school of the National Ballet of Cuba. He was performing with the troupe on a U.S. tour in the late 1990s when Robert Weiss, director of the Carolina Ballet, spotted him and brought him to dance for his troupe in Raleigh, N.C. Rodriguez soon connected with Carlos Miguel Guerra, a close friend from Cuba who joined Miami City Ballet in 2001 and helped persuade then-artistic director Edward Villella to bring Rodriguez on board in 2003.
He proved to be an exceptional dancer with a riveting, panther-like combination of power and smoothness. But he could also be irresponsible, and was let go from the company for a time for missing rehearsals. Friends say his relationship with Sciturro stabilized him, and he rejoined MCB in 2010.
The following year, he began to have pain and numbness in his neck and shoulder. Rehearsing the duels in Romeo and Juliet, the stage sword would suddenly drop from his hand. “He’d be lifting girls all day and then he’d come home and couldn’t lift a fork,” Sciturro says.
But Rodriguez pushed aside his pain and doubts, performing in the company’s three-week season in Paris in the summer of 2011, and in lead roles that fall.
“Edward would always say, “If you can’t do it, don’t,’” Rodriguez says. “But what am I going to do? When you’re a dancer, you always dance. So I’d say, ‘No man, c’mon, let’s go.’ But sometimes inside I’d be like a kid, thinking, ‘What’s happening to me?’ ”
He was diagnosed with two herniated discs in his neck, for which he had surgery in April 2012. He returned to rehearsal that fall, and, eager to be back onstage, performed a minor role in the Nutcracker in December.
But he was also complaining of headaches and that he didn’t “feel right.” He and Sciturro spent Christmas with her family in Michigan, but Rodriguez, who hated the cold, returned to Miami by himself on Dec. 28. That evening a neighbor heard him banging and screaming wordlessly, and found Rodriguez, who had dragged himself to the entrance of his apartment, collapsed in the doorway.
He was rushed to Mount Sinai and into surgery. Doctors called Sciturro and urged her to come immediately.
When she arrived the next morning, he was sedated, with stitches circling the left side of his skull. When he woke up five days later, Sciturro says, “He was like a baby. He couldn’t talk, he’d point to things. He couldn’t move his right side. He couldn’t say his name, he didn’t know who or where he was.”
Vanessa Stocki, a speech pathologist at Mount Sinai who has worked with Rodriguez since January, credits his determination and Sciturro’s support with bringing him further than most.
“He’s an amazing patient,” says Stocki. “A lot of people get very depressed. They don’t have that willpower, that drive to keep doing therapy. Their psychological and social state of mind are a huge factor.”
But Stocki, who is charging Rodriguez a reduced rate to work with him at home, says he needs help if he’s going to keep progressing.
“The amazing thing with the brain is repetition and consistency sticks,” she says. “They need [therapy] every day or multiple times a week, otherwise sometimes those skills are gone for good.”
Whether Rodriguez can recover his dancing skills is in question. While his strength and superb physical condition have helped him recover, Heros, the Jackson neurosurgeon, says it’s unrealistic to think he will reach his previous physical peak.
Stocki is more measured. “It can astound you how the young brain can recuperate,” she says. “Everything is so patient-specific. But I can never promise a patient will get back to where they were before.”
The one person who doesn’t seem to doubt Rodriguez’s return is his old friend Guerra, who, along with Sciturro, has been his strongest supporter. The two men became close friends as teenage dancers in Cuba, and call each other “brother.” Guerra was with him in the hospital before Sciturro arrived. When Rodriguez awoke, his first words were “Bebe,” his nickname for Sciturro, and “Carlos, mi hermano.”
“He’s like the brother I always wanted to have,” says Guerra. “I admire him so much. I know he would always be there for me. I miss him so much in the company.”
He has been encouraging and pushing Rodriguez to start dancing with him.
“I was like, ‘Isa, yes you can, you can dance again, you have at least five more years,’ ” Guerra says. “I say, ‘Let’s jump, first position, c’mon man, let’s go have fun, you can do it.’
“I just want him to come back and remember what he used to do and the passion he has for dance. I know he can do it.”