David Markovich

This past spring, David Markovich, 22, of Beachwood, was a John Carroll University student studying gerontology and looking forward to his graduation in May. But on April 20, a week prior to finals, he woke up early in the morning to sharp, shooting pains down his back and in both legs, and a fever of 103 degrees.

He called 911, and an ambulance transported him to the Cleveland Clinic. Soon after his arrival, he noticed tingling in his legs. He thought it was just the position in which he was lying on the emergency room bed. But within the hour, his legs had no feeling.

He notified physicians, who ran over 60 different tests. The next day, he was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease called transverse myelitis, which stems from an unknown virus and affects the myelin that coats the spinal cord.

“It affects approximately five out of a million people, and I won that lottery,” said Markovich.

One-third of individuals with the disease never recover and are wheelchair-bound. An additional one-third partially recover and regain some function, while the final third regain all function.

The disease left Markovich paralyzed from the T12 section of the spinal cord, right below the belly.

Each time he asked the doctors if he would be able to walk again, he received the same answer: “I don’t know.” They told him regaining function could take up to two years.

Markovich received five treatments of plasmapheresis, a procedure similar to dialysis in which the blood is filtered. He also received what he said one physician described as a “punishing dose” of steroids and tried at least 10 different antibiotics and antivirals.

After 10 days, he was able to wiggle his left big toe but still had no movement in his right leg. From there, he traveled to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore by ambulance to be under the care of Dr. Carlos Pardo, one of two doctors in the nation considered an expert in transverse myelitis.

That night, Markovich woke up to a racing heart. He was experiencing a pulmonary embolism. Because he was unable to move and his muscles were not pumping blood, he developed a clot in his lung. He was immediately sent to the ICU, where he spent three days as doctors corrected the issue.

After 10 days at Johns Hopkins, Pardo told Markovich he needed to pursue aggressive physical therapy. At this point, he could lift his left leg slightly off the hospital bed.

He transferred to the rehabilitation unit of MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, where he practiced physical therapy for at least three hours a day, often staying an extra hour.

The first time he stood up, he blacked out. Slowly but surely, though, he began seeing progress.

“One of the most important things is to keep a positive attitude when you’re battling a monster like this,” Markovich said.

He credits his family, physicians and girlfriend Catie with consistently lifting his spirits.

“I’m a strong believer in a Jewish concept called emunah, which consists of the belief that God has everything happen to you for a reason,” said Markovich. “I felt that the whole way through, God would send me signs.”

After three weeks, he left Good Samaritan using a walker and relocated to Kennedy Krieger Institute’s international center for spinal cord injury in Baltimore, where he stayed for about two months. He was assigned a physical therapist named Chris, whom Markovich described as “absolutely relentless.”

“If I wanted to conquer this disease, I had to put my pain on the back burner,” said Markovich. “(Chris) laughed at my tears, but ultimately, when I was done at Kennedy Krieger, I was out on my own to feet. I was able to walk.”

When Markovich returned to Cleveland, he was given a workout regimen instead of supervised physical therapy.

“I’m at the point now where transverse myelitis doesn’t greatly interfere with my life,” he said.

Shortly after his return, Markovich began working toward running a 5K “to show that there’s nothing the human spirit can’t conquer.” He chose to participate in the Baltimore Running Festival with Catie on Oct. 18.

A few days before the race, he decided to see how far he could push himself and signed up for the half marathon instead. He and Catie finished the race in about three hours.

“It was one of the proudest accomplishments of my life,” Markovich said.

“People ask me, ‘So are you back to normal?’ No, I’m not back to normal, but I’m at the point where I can enjoy my life, and I feel like I have won the battle with this disease.”

How do you feel about this article?

Choose from the options below.