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Aerospace launch director looks to the stars again after traumatic accident

By John Muratore’s own admission, he was a real mess. Two weeks out of surgery to repair cracked spinal vertebrae and a severely broken leg, he arrived at TIRR Memorial Hermann where specialists from McGovern Medical School at UTHealth helped him through the first stage of rehabilitation, draped with a surgical gown over a soiled medical diaper.

Limbs numb, unable to sit up, a cervical collar guarding his fractured neck, he lay helpless in the aftermath of a head-on vehicle collision in September 2019. His physical therapist conducted an initial assessment, cleaned him up, and exchanged his hospital garb for a fresh polo shirt, shorts, and a sneaker for his good foot.

“I don’t want to disappoint you,” John said, “but I won’t be able to do much of anything.”

“John, my friend,” the therapist replied, “tomorrow, we start to work.”

A United States Air Force veteran, John carries the forward-looking military ethos that drove him to excel in a decades-long career in aerospace, first for NASA and then for a private space exploration company.

On the first day of rehabilitation, therapists worked alongside John to get him sitting up in a wheelchair—a process that took three hours as he repeatedly passed out. A day later, they could wheel him to the end of his room.

“The next day, we made it down to the gym,” John says. “I told them, ‘I don’t know what you expect me to do here, but I’ll try.’” 

Over the course of a month, John painstakingly rebuilt his physical stamina and learned to walk again while his limbs recovered most of the feeling they had lost when the crash jarred his spinal cord out of alignment. Titanium rods and cadaver bones—part of the surgical repair UTHealth surgeons John Munz, MD, and Shah-Nawaz Dodwad, MD, performed—held his neck and leg stable.

“The physical therapists pushed me to get better every day,” John says. “They were relentless but incredibly kind. It was truly amazing to work with them.”

John lightened the mood at group exercise classes with his trademark humor—a weight stick found new purpose as a lightsaber—and bantered so freely with his wife, Mary, during therapy sessions that their comedy show started drawing a small crowd.

“People asked me how I got through this,” he says. “I have an amazing wife, had an incredible medical team, I didn’t give up, and God blessed me with healing. I stand on those four pillars today.” 

Living at TIRR Memorial Hermann also brought John into contact with patients across the spectrum of injury. Even though he labored to regain basic functions, he knew he would eventually get them back. Others might never eat, drink, breathe, or walk unassisted again.

“They were such an inspiration to me,” he says. “Not only the patients, but the doctors, nurses, therapists. It was an incredible place with so many people striving to overcome unbelievable hardships.”

After being discharged from TIRR Memorial Hermann on November 10, 2019, he returned to his home in Brownsville, Texas, a month and a half after a helicopter airlifted him to the Texas Medical Center. He still has some lingering numbness and neck pain, but he makes it up and down stairs now and has returned to work.

John has changed in quite a few ways since his accident. He expresses his emotions more freely, enjoys a richer relationship with his family, and has a new perspective on daily difficulties that seem insignificant now. He also developed new inexplicable tastes for coffee and champagne.

“I can’t resist making a bad joke now either,” he says. “I think I’m incredibly funny.”

He will always carry the memories of his unexpected time at TIRR Memorial Hermann—an experience that, although filled with intense struggle, has helped shape him in many positive ways. He even sees the lingering difficulties from his injury in a new light.

“I may not have complete restoration to what life used to be, but I’m grateful to have come this far after wondering if I would ever walk again,” John says. “I’m still amazed by how the physicians from McGovern Medical School spent so many years of their lives learning these skills so they could help me.”

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