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12 May, 2022

Madi defies medical odds

ALWAYS centre stage, Mareeba’s Madi Srhoj-Simonato was the perfect prima ballerina, with high hopes of a career in dance until in one morning she woke up completely paralysed from the neck down.

By Ellie Fink

Mareeba’s Madi Srhoj-Simonato has defied the odds after a mysterious medical illness left her completely paralysed 11 times in five years. Regardless, she has taken off as a successful personal trainer, pilates and barre instructor, inspired by the physios and specialists who have helped her along the way.

ALWAYS centre stage, Mareeba’s Madi Srhoj-Simonato was the perfect prima ballerina, with high hopes of a career in dance until in one morning she woke up completely paralysed from the neck down. 

The then 15-year-old didn’t know what or how it had happened as she laid in bed terrified, being rushed to the hospital with a mysterious illness that took away her ability to move for weeks. Now five years later, Madi still has no real answer to what happened that night and the 11 relapses after that but is now using her recovery journey in physiotherapy to educate, move and recover.

“I had lots of MRI scans on my brain and spine – I was only 15 at the time and was so lost and confused. I went from being so strong and at the highest peak of my dancing career to becoming a fragile little girl learning to walk again,” she said. “I was strapped onto a bed that could stand up so I could start to put pressure on my legs and over the next few days I then had to try and start walking.

 “I felt like an idiot not being able to walk and having to re-learn it and you really start to question life and how you just don’t even think of walking and then one day you’re dragging your feet on the ground holding crutches to walk again.”

Madi then found herself in a wheelchair for a period of time until she managed to regain her strength through rehabilitation and physiotherapy. Although a perfect diagnosis could not be ruled out by any specialist doctors, Madi was told her condition was very similar to structural functioning neurological disorder. The only real way to find out what it is, is to have her in an MRI whilst she is relapsing – something that is nearly impossible to accomplish. 

After recovering from the first relapse, Madi continued to dance in Brisbane until it happened again and this time, she was alone without family. Specialists in Brisbane had no clue why she was paralysed, which left her heartbroken but determined to get better again. 

“I thought it may have been a once-off thing but by the time you get to the 11th relapse it just becomes a normal thing, it just gets kind of frustrating now,” she said. “Once I left the hospital the second time after going through the same physio again, I went to a beach down on the Gold Coast and that was where I decided I had to give up dancing. It was a hard decision, but my illness really helped me decide that dancing wasn’t the career path I wanted to take anymore. 

“Dancing was all I had known as it was my passion, so I found it extremely hard to come to terms with giving it up. I gave up dancing and went to a boarding school in Brisbane and I loved it down there.” 

Through physio, she met many people who she looked up to in their job, helping people like her regain their strength and confidence when taking baby steps again. Madi explained that it was those people who inspired her to begin working as a personal trainer and fitness instructor. 

“When I was down in Brisbane, I met my physio James Grimm and I used to spend quite a bit of time with him as you can imagine as every day I was in there,” she said. “I was just straight into it, from all his rehab side of things as I loved learning about the body so that interest really helped me through rehab. “And then I was trying to come up with my own little exercises to help improve and then after that, I stayed in Brisbane for a couple more years and I met a strength and conditioning coach. She was a dancer as well.” 

Madi and her strength and conditioning coach Rebecca Hall connected quickly, with many common interests including personal fitness. Rebecca kept Madi going, constantly reminding her “you've just got to persist and you'll get there”. 

It’s been nearly two years since her last relapse and Madi now runs classes across Mareeba and Atherton, teaching Pilates, barre and boot camps whilst studying to become a primary school teacher.

 “I want to be able to build a business where everyone feels comfortable no matter what shape or size they are,” she said. “They do say ‘once a dancer always a dancer’ and I now use my old passion for dancing and turn it into fitness and training. “I use the technique components to help others. When I teach my barre classes I teach them to improve strength, tone muscles, core, flexibility, posture and alignment.” 

Whilst she learned to love the physical side to recovery and how to become a personal trainer, her passion has always been with teaching like her mother but she says she hopes to continue running boot camps on the side. She also hopes to spread awareness of her illness and help the very small number of people struggling with it. 

“I want my story to get out there so if there is anyone out there who was just as lost as I was when I was younger, I want them to know that they will always find a way to get through it,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to meet the right people!”

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