Paralyzed dancer to attempt Bridge Run

Marka Danielle Rodgers has been working with physical therapist Jamie Hamric at Roper to prepare for walking the Cooper River Bridge Run. Her campaign #PurpleLegsUp seeks to raise money for the local spinal cord injury program.

Marka Danielle Rodgers is a life-long dancer but she never aspired to run or walk in the Cooper River Bridge Run until this year.

Rodgers, who is 59, is doing it on a challenge and it’s fair to say it will be more challenging for her than probably 99 percent of those who will, or ever have before, run or walk the 6.2-mile course featuring Charleston’s biggest “hill” on April 2.

Rodgers will join Adam Gorlitsky in being the first paraplegics to walk the event, thanks to cutting-edge modern technology.

While many locals know from Gorlitsky’s higher profile effort that he will be using an $80,000 exoskeleton by ReWalk, Rodgers is using a straight leg brace, or more specifically, an “E-MAG active stance control brace” by Ottobock.

“I call them my Frankenstein legs,” says Rodgers.

The braces, commonly called a KAFO or knee-ankle-foot orthosis, feature a gyroscope, sensors and a battery. Her pair cost $20,000, which were paid for by a generous gift from her first boyfriend after they talked about it at their 40th high school reunion last year.

Rodgers and Gorlitsky are using different devices because their injuries aren’t the same. Her injuries are less severe and she has some remaining physical control in her lower limbs, which many attribute to years of dance practice and training.

While one would never know it from her pleasant demeanor, Rodgers has been dealt a series of bad hands in life.

Trained at the Boston Conservatory and accepted for a full scholarship at the Alvin Ailey Co., Rodgers found New York too rough in the 1970s and landed a teaching job in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“The job offer was for a year and I stayed eight,” says Rodgers. “I absolutely loved it.”

But in 1988, her son was born with “serious medical issues” and her family convinced her to move back to the United States.

At the time, she says, “there (was) no health insurance for babies with problems” in the United States. And in an unusual move, the dancer became a firefighter. In 1991, she landed a job with the Charleston County Fire Department in 1991. Two years later, she joined the county’s emergency medical services.

It was not long after that, on April 14, 1994, that she found herself in the first of three health challenges. She was helping to carry a stretcher with a “large, unconscious patient” on it when it broke and took her down with it, breaking her back.

But with her physical background, she was “rebuilt with fusion, donor bone and screws.”

“I was never completely paralyzed, even though (her spine doctor) wondered how I wasn’t,” says Rodgers, who returned to walking, working and dancing.

Then came the evening of June 26, 2012, when she was driving home from teaching a dance class at the MUSC Wellness Center. A young woman ran a red light, T-boned Rodgers on the driver’s door, damaging the vertebrae in her neck.

Before rehabilitation, the injury left her paralyzed from her shoulders down.

“I’ve regained a lot of muscle movement. I have a little bit of everything, but not enough to make things work and let me stand on my own. Everything sort of works, but not completely,” says Rodgers, whose third health challenge awaited her.

Since then, Rodgers has been active in the spinal cord injury community, volunteering as a mentor since her injury. (She also continues to teach dance from a wheelchair.) And that’s where she met Gorlitsky, who was paralyzed after an accident on Interstate 26 on December 30, 2005, at the age of 19.

When Gorlitsky started using an exoskeleton, Rodgers was working with her straight braces. Gorlitsky proclaimed that he was going to walk the Bridge Run and challenged her to do so, too.

She recalls the conversation going like this:

Gorlitsky: “We’re going to work together and you’re going to walk with me.”

Rodgers: “I didn’t walk the bridge before I got hurt. Why would I want to do it now?”

Gorlitsky: “Because I’m challenging you.”

At about the same time, however, Rodgers faced an added challenge. On Sept. 14, 2015, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy. Just recently, however, she got “a bill of clean health.”

Unlike Gorlitsky, Rodgers has few reservations, both personally and for others, about the Bridge Run attempt.

“Part of my concern with walking the bridge is that it promotes the myth that anybody can use this technology. There are pros and cons with it. I can’t get up in the morning, put these on and go about my day. There are limitations. ... The batteries can die or the technology can fail.”

And she admits there may be some level of compromise in walking the Bridge Run because of the length and the grade of the Ravenel. A recent walk from the base to the first “diamond” span and back took two hours. Another three mile walk on the track at MUSC took an hour and 45 minutes.

“I might have to ride some of it in a (wheel)chair,” says Rodgers, noting that both she and Gorlitsky will have a crew to support them and protect them from the stampede of runners and walkers.

Then there’s weather. The high tech braces aren’t supposed to get wet. Rodgers’ niece sewed clear plastic waders for the braces, just in case.

But Rodgers also sees their effort as pioneering and will remind people what “FAIL” stands for: first attempt in learning.

“I think that’s key,” she says.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.