Natalie Flores

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It’s not what you feel, it’s what you know.

When a spinal cord tumor threatened Natalie Flores’ life, the Methodist Moody Brain and Spine Institute fought back

There’s a spot on Natalie Flores’ neck that is extremely ticklish. But for every inch of her body below that spot, all tickling attempts fail.

Since a lifesaving spine surgery in 2010, Natalie has had difficulty feeling from the neck down except in her forefingers and thumbs.

Nevertheless, she has relearned how to walk and drive. She’s re-mastered the art of straightening her hair. She even has a perfectly firm handshake.

“I’m now at a point where my body does what I tell it to do, but I still can’t feel myself doing it,” the now-26-year-old Sunnyvale resident says. “It’s crazy.”

Even crazier is this: If one thing had gone wrong during that surgery four years ago, Natalie’s story would be much different.

Something’s not right

That story begins in spring 2010. After a car accident, she began experiencing neck pain. As the months passed, things only got worse. Natalie’s mother, Sonia Flores, noticed that Natalie was dragging her left foot and complaining it was asleep.

“The we noticed her words started slurring,” Sonia says. “I said, ‘This isn’t right.’”

They sought the expertise of a neurologist, who ordered an MRI scan. The results compelled him to refer Natalie to the Methodist Moody Brain and Spine Institute at Methodist Dallas Medical Center.

A young life on the line

“When I saw the MRI, my heart sank,” recalls neurosurgeon Nimesh Patel, MD, with the Institute. “A malignant tumor had split the spinal cord in two and all the way up to the brain stem, affecting her ability to breathe and move.

“If I did nothing, the tumor would take her young life. If I did do something, she had a high risk of being paralyzed. This required on of the riskiest surgeries in neuro, period.”

Hoping for the best, Natalie celebrated her 23rd birthday on Sept. 25 and had surgery on Sept. 30. A team of neurosurgeons worked for hours to remove the tumor as thoroughly and carefully as possible. Then they waited.

A walking miracle

“We took a sigh of relief when we saw she could move her arms and legs,” Dr. Patel says.

Even though Natalie couldn’t control those movements, her body still knew how to do them. This was the sign Dr. Patel needed.

“At Methodist Dallas, we have a specialized team for brain and spinal cord injury patients,” he says. “As soon as surgery is completed, physical therapy is in place to help maximize their ability to heal.”

Natalie started learning to walk again with a walker. She credits these first days of physical therapy in the hospital as a milestone in her recovery.

“I kept thinking, if I can take a couple of steps, I can walk more than this,” she says. “I knew in my head I wouldn’t need a walker forever.”

The Flores family says Natalie received the best care at Methodist Dallas.

“We were totally impressed with all the staff,” Sonia says. “If we needed something, they were always there.”

A future full of hope

Natalie says the weeks and months following the surgery were the hardest she’s ever known. But today she’s gracing the world with a beautiful smile and a mind set to making the most of the second chance Methodist Dallas gave her. She dreams of finishing college, living on her own, getting married, and building a family.

For other young people who may get discouraged by life’s obstacles, she offers these words: “Don’t give up. Everything is going to be okay, and things work out the way they’re supposed to.”

And sometimes, they even work out miraculously.

From the fall 2014 edition of Shine magazine.