Will They Walk Again? Injured Acrobats Face Long Rehab

May 7, 2014

Homemade cards and flowers are pouring in to Rhode Island Hospital for the seven injured circus acrobats who remain hospitalized there. That’s buoyed the performers’ spirits, four of whom are still in serious condition.

Nurses say they’ve had to find extra space for all the cards and flowers from kids, some of whom were at last Sunday’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performance in Providence. They were watching several female acrobats hang by their hair, dangling in formation like crystals on a chandelier, when something snapped and the performers plunged nearly 20 feet to the hard floor.

Remarkably, no one died or suffered major head trauma. Two of the injured acrobats have been discharged. But four of the seven are still in serious condition. The injuries were severe, including a pierced liver, broken limbs, and three spinal fractures, requiring 17 different surgeries in all.

At a press conference about the patients' condition, Neurosurgeon Adetokunbo Oyelese, MD, PhD said three patients suffered spinal fractures, putting them at risk of paralysis.

Members of the medical team at Rhode Island Hospital who have been caring for the injured circus acrobats appeared at a press conference Wednesday morning. From left to right, Roman Hayda, MD, orthopedic surgeon; Adetokunbo Oyelese, MD, PhD, neurosurgeon; Arthur Bert, MD, chief of anesthesia; Stephanie Farquhar, RN, MS, CCRN, clinical manager, SICU; David Harrington, MD, trauma surgeon; Timothy Babineau, MD, president and CEO, Lifespan, Rhode Island Hospital.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

“In two of those patients the spinal cord was actually injured. In one of the patients the spinal cord was not injured but was potentially at risk. So those patients, the first thing we do is try to minimize the injury to the spinal cord.”

Oyelese said the two couldn’t move their legs when they arrived at the hospital, but that’s improved a bit. But he says it could take up to a year before doctors know whether the women will be able to walk again. What is clear is that most of the performers will need long term physical rehabilitation, which doctors say the women are hoping to go through together.

Oyelese said the performers’ youth and physical fitness may have prevented worse injuries, and it will definitely help them bounce back more quickly.                                 

“These are some of the healthiest patients I’ve operated on in a long time," said Oyelese. "With good reason, we typically don’t see other than, in a setting of trauma, young healthy individuals needing neurosurgical intervention. So that does help us. It makes our job a little easier.”

Doctors aren't yet certain whether the women will recover enough to be able to perform the same kinds of acrobatics they could before the accident. But one patient is reportedly already thinking that far ahead; she refused more pain medication because she didn't want to interrupt her stretching routine.

Doctors also say the women's families have been on hand to support them.