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From Dancer to Doctor

Dr. Colucci describes his career transition from professional dancer to radiologist

Advice to improve your movement, fitness, and overall health from the world #1 in orthopedics.

Martha Graham once said that “A dancer dies twice, once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.” I knew this to be true when I chose to pursue a career in ballet. But this realization didn’t come with a sense of fear. From the outset I simply accepted the eventuality of it - I would have to choose a second career.

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Photo credit: Paul Kolnik

There are many traditional options for a dancer’s career transition, like teaching, choreography, and various administrative roles within arts organizations. I was fortunate to also have had many experiences working backstage and particularly enjoyed lighting design and stage management. However, it was the anatomy course at Juilliard, taught by Irene Dowd, that would prove to be the key to my career on stage and beyond.

It was only my second season as a professional ballet dancer when I had a potentially career ending injury. A herniated disc in my lower back made it difficult to walk and impossible to dance for months. The biggest challenge with this injury is that, with rest and conservative motion, I could be essentially pain-free. But any wrong movement could trigger an unbelievably sharp and severe pain, like a knife was cutting down the back of my leg. The invisible nature of my injury left my ballet colleagues somewhat incredulous and led to quite frustrating conversations with the insurance company’s case manager. If not for the extraordinary care I received from my physical therapists and physicians, I am sure this would be the end of this story.

Eventually I found myself back on stage and, soon after, cast in many leading roles. One of my favorites was Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free, which I was slated to be both first and second cast in the role of the “first sailor” for our company premier. Unfortunately, less than a week before opening night, my old injury suddenly resurfaced in the final minutes of an otherwise uneventful rehearsal. Based on my previous treatments, I knew there was a narrow window for an injection to give me any chance of continuing on with the show.

When I called to schedule a transforaminal steroid injection to quiet my inflamed nerve root, I was shocked that the radiologist, Dr. William Morrison, answered the call himself. I assumed I must have called the wrong number and apologized immediately. Sensing the urgency of the situation, Dr. Morrison scheduled me immediately. At the time, when I insisted that he accept complimentary tickets, it was literally beyond my imagination that I might one day follow his footsteps into a new career.

Dr. Morrison became an avid supporter of the ballet, a close friend, and eventually an extraordinary mentor. The unpredictable nature of my injury heightened my awareness of each moment in the studio and on stage as much as it forced me to consider what might come next. I assumed that a college degree in dance would automatically exclude me from other professions, especially medicine. However, I came to learn that many of Dr. Morrison’s physician colleagues had pursued equally artistic pursuits prior to medical school. It was this bridge between worlds that led me to retire at the peak of my dance career and begin the slow ascent through medical education.

For better and for worse, I found Martha Graham’s insight to be entirely true. I could not possibly overstate how painful it was for me to be forced into the wings so early in my career. But the second time I stopped dancing, during the moments of my final bow, the experience was shadowed not by death but the realization that I might one day be able to support the next generation of performing artists in a way that literally saved my career. Whether someone’s goals are returning to stage jumping higher than ever or having enough pain relief and strength to hold a new grandchild, the expertise and understanding I experienced during the most fragile moments of my dance career inspire the support I provide to each of my patients looking to get back to what they love.

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