How wheelchair rugby transformed Daniel Ortiz’s life

By Jade Waddy

Four years ago, a heroic act forever altered Daniel Ortiz’s life.

“One night, while I was heading home, I saw an accident on the other side of the road so I went over to help the passengers,” Ortiz said. “When I returned to my vehicle, as I was sitting down, another vehicle rear ended me.”

Ortiz’s next memory was waking up at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. Doctors delivered the news that he had suffered a C5-C6 incomplete spinal cord injury which left him paralyzed from the chest down. Ortiz spent a week in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) before being transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann to begin his journey of rehabilitation.

“When Daniel first got to TIRR Memorial Hermann we focused on trunk control and helping him to become stronger in his core,” said Matthew Davis, MD, clinical medical director, Spinal Cord Injury Program at TIRR Memorial Hermann. “His ability to switch from a power wheelchair to a manual wheelchair shortly after his arrival was an important step.”

Ortiz would complete two phases of rehabilitation at TIRR Memorial Hermann, each focusing on improving his strength and independence.

Reigniting a passion for fitness

It was during phase two of his rehabilitation when the former coach of the TIRR Memorial Hermann Texans, the hospital’s adult rugby team, spotted Ortiz at a local gym working out.

“He approached me asking me if I knew anything about adaptive sports and rugby,” Ortiz recalled. “I didn’t know anything about rugby but he explained and I was intrigued.”

Ortiz, who was active and excelled at soccer growing up, was interested in the benefits that could come from joining an organized sports team.

In the late 1990s, TIRR Memorial Hermann developed its Adaptive Sports Program to give athletes with all types of disabilities an outlet to continue playing sports competitively and through intramural programs that include basketball, rugby, hand cycling and ultimate Frisbee. 

“I’ve always been passionate about keeping up fitness and staying active, so this was a great opportunity for me,” Ortiz said.

According to the National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability, the positive health benefits for individuals who participate in adaptive sports include good blood circulation, stronger muscles, better balance and coordination; reduced risk of developing a chronic condition such as diabetes, stroke, or heart disease; reduced risk of developing a secondary condition related to the primary disability; increased energy and enhanced strength to enable a person to perform more tasks on his or her own and the prevention of several mental conditions such as depression, trouble adjusting to certain situations, stress and anxiety.

Ortiz, who plays in the low pointer position, has been competing with the TIRR Memorial Hermann Texans for three years now.

“Danny is such a great guy and a perfect example of how important the opportunity to play sports again is to so many,” Adapted Sports Coordinator Peggy Turner said.

According to Turner, becoming quickly connected to adapted sport, recreation and physical activity after acquiring a disability is so important to the wellbeing of the person.  

“It’s life changing in a positive way for the individual and the whole family after such an initial life changing accident or illness,” Turner added.

“My time on the team has been awesome, I’ve been able to meet others with similar injuries and they have taught me how to be even more independent,” Ortiz added. “I’ve been able to get so much stronger and it has made a world of difference in my life.”

To learn more about the adaptive sports program at TIRR Memorial Hermann visit http://tirr.memorialhermann.org/patient-resources/adaptive-sports/

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