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Soccer goalkeeper Nadia, hits rehab targets after spinal tumour surgery

Forty-one year old Nadia Dambrosi says the best thing she ever did was to join her local soccer club a few years ago. The Sydney local, who works in sales and marketing, says she’s as passionate about the game and her team-mates as she is about everything in life – work, road cycling, and her beloved fiancé and their dog.

Nadia says it was during a game last October when she first realised something was wrong.

“I did an awkward dive during the game and my back hurt,” Nadia said. “It was sore after the game but I wasn’t too focussed on it as I was working on getting my knee strength after tearing my meniscus earlier in the season.”

Nadia describes how her back kept ‘going on me’ and even bought a new mattress thinking it would help. But the pain continued, and a second symptom soon became evident.

“Over Christmas, I couldn’t sneeze or laugh or do normal things without being very uncomfortable. I also became conscious of a numbness in the back of my thigh,” she said. “So, when I went to see my orthopaedic surgeon in January for a follow up knee appointment, I said ‘while I’m here, I have this numbness – could it be related?’”

The doctor did a reflex check on both of Nadia’s knees and achilleas. There was no reaction. He said it was likely just a nerve but recommended she see her GP.

Shock as tumour identified as the cause of her numbness and back pain

In the next few days, Nadia started experiencing numbness on the outside of her left foot too. It wasn’t severe but she thought it was odd. She saw her GP who sent her for an MRI which revealed a lesion in her spine.

‘’They didn’t know if it was attached to or inside my spinal cord at this stage – the news was a terrible shock,” Nadia said.

Nadia’s neurosurgeon explained that a tumour was blocking 90 per cent of her spinal cord. He went on to tell her that the only way to know the severity was with spinal surgery. She had a spinal cord pilocytic astrocytoma – a T12 and L2 tumour resection and laminectomy on 18 February 2021. This affected the conus medullaris, the area at the base of the spine which controls bowel, bladder and sexual function, as well as the legs.

“At this stage, all I was trying to do was absorb what he was telling me. He said that in the best case, they would remove the tumour and I’d be walking again in 3 days. I remember really having to brace for the worst in the lead up to my surgery,” recalls Nadia.

Learning to walk and gain control of bowel and bladder again

Waking up after surgery, Nadia learned the tumour had been in her spinal cord. She couldn’t feel her left leg and wasn’t able to control her bowel or bladder. The surgeon described what he’d found as ‘a mess’ that was like spaghetti he had to peel off every nerve individually. This made it possible to only remove 80 per cent of the tumour to avoid further deficit.

Nadia spent seven days in hospital before being admitted to Royal Rehab Private Hospital for post-operative rehabilitation. Her goals were to learn how to use her bladder and bowel again, walk and build strength.

As an active and enthusiastic participant in rehab, Nadia saw improvements in her mobility and movement through a variety of programs including lower limb strength exercises during physiotherapy, gait training and hydrotherapy. She saw quick results with improvement in her foot drop and walking, started using a splint and crutches within a few days and even began walking short distances without them. She describes learning the more technical components of walking properly again and how she needed to retrain her brain to walk. Key to her progress was repetition and new exercises each week, which the physio team constantly adjusted for incremental progress. She initially had difficulty with her  hip giving way during walking. Her hip is now no longer buckling, and she is achieving full steps with confidence.

Nadia says bladder and bowel control took her longer to regain

“No-one sees the bladder and bowel stuff,” Nadia said. “At the start, I was completely mortified. I had to wear pads and have other people help me. It was initially upsetting. But the Royal Rehab nurses were amazing and they supported me to manage. I didn’t know what rehab was to be honest and I didn’t realise how technical it is. There is so many things you take for granted in life.”

Nadia thought the approach of the Royal Rehab Private Hospital team was great – holistic, well-structured and provided an outline of the following day’s schedule “similar to what you get on a cruise ship’’. She also appreciated how everyone worked as a team and how friendly they were.

“Everyone here talks to each other and monitors you constantly. If they see me walking in the corridor they might say ‘squeeze your glutes’ or ‘take a smaller step.’ If they spotted that I wasn’t wearing my compression stocking, they’d remind me. No question is too silly – they’re very good like that – they have a case conference every week just about my progress, goals and well-being.”

She says her stay at Royal Rehab Private Hospital felt like home, and the staff were ‘AMAZING’ always happy to stop by and have a chat and connect even about her Lego and Star Wars memorabilia and stuffed ‘alien pillow’.

Ready to tackle her cancer journey and the hope of wedding bells in the air

By the end of six weeks of rehab, Nadia was able to walk unaided. She says she never expected to be speaking to professionals like occupational therapists or to receive assistance from the government, through the NDIS. 

‘’I’ve seen massive progression being at Royal Rehab,” Nadia says.

She’s looking forward to going back to work and the smile in her voice is audible when she talks about the wedding bells in her future.

“Life looks a little different now. I’m planning our wedding which we deferred last year due to COVID and we’d like to do more travel and just appreciate things. I work too much and it’s easy to get caught up in that,” said Nadia.

Her advice to others in rehab

Nadia believes it’s really important to take it one day at a time and that you get out of it what you put in. Listen to your doctors and treating team they are here to get you back to your new best and support you in achieving your goals.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself. Stay positive. And remember everyone’s journey is different. The people here always encouraged and motivated me. I decided to work hard and make the most of rehab while I had access a professional team, the gym and other facilities,” she said.

Positive support is also key. Nadia mentions her fiancé and parents, and her employer who provided accommodation for Nadia’s family from Queensland and ‘escapes’ for her fiancé to give him a break.

“It’s so important to keep positive people around you. I didn’t want people to be sad – yes, I have a tumour, and yes it’s not curable. But all I can do is take one day at a time and do what I’m told. I’m very blessed – I have the best group of friends and family and supporters. My soccer team has also given me extra support above what I would have otherwise had.”