Healing Power of the Tango (why not the SALSA)???

This from today’s Chicago Sun-Times and the folks at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, near Chicago. Please note the offloading device on the foot of the dance instructor.

Healing power of the tango
Dragisa Novakovich wears a foot brace as he dances the tango with Irena Vujanovich at the St. Francis Hospital cafeteria last week in Evanston.

‘MIRACULOUS’ | Oxygen treatment helps diabetic dance instructor avoid amputation — so he celebrates by teaching hospital to tango

September 13, 2010

For Dragisa “Danny” Novakovich, a tango instructor and diabetic from Rogers Park, life without dance was something he couldn’t imagine.

So when he developed a severe bacterial infection and three doctors told him that part of his left leg would have to be amputated, he told them no.

“I wasn’t afraid,” he said. “I wasn’t scared. I just said: ‘That’s not going to happen.’ “

Novakovich’s determination to keep his leg led him to St. Francis Hospital in Evanston and its Wound Healing Center for an alternative treatment — intensive hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

Novakovich, 56, made a deal with the staff: You save my leg, and I’ll teach you how to tango.

Now fully healed, he made good on his promise last week, giving a free dance lesson in the hospital cafeteria.

Dr. Sunitha Nair, the wound center’s medical director, said she’s floored by Novakovich’s progress over the last six months.

“I don’t say this lightly, but this is truly a miraculous recovery,” she said.

Novakovich said the experience has changed his perspective on life and his diabetes.

“I don’t take anything for granted anymore,” he said. “Diabetes is something I thought I knew a lot about, and I found out I don’t know anything about it.”

His ordeal began in March, when he started feeling sick, like he was coming down with the flu. It wasn’t until a few days later, when his left foot became swollen and blistered, that Novakovich realized it was something serious.

A friend took him to the emergency room at St. Francis. The diagnosis: necrotizing fasciitis, a rare condition also known as flesh-eating bacteria.

It’s not clear how Novakovich became infected, though it’s common for diabetics to develop nerve damage that limits their ability to feel pain, heat or cold in their lower limbs.

“He must have had an injury to his leg that he probably didn’t feel, and that was an entry point for the bacteria,” Nair said.

Multiple surgeries and antibiotics saved Novakovich’s life. But the tissue damage caused by the infection was so severe that doctors recommended below-the-knee amputation.

Nair said she initially shared that opinion when Novakovich came to the wound center in April with a foot “swollen to the size of a watermelon.” But she agreed to try aggressive treatment, as long as Novakovich agreed to have an amputation immediately if Nair decided it was medically necessary.

“Even on the first visit, he had an intense will to make this happen,” Nair said. “I truly believe that factored into his healing. Every instruction we provided him, he followed to the letter and went above and beyond.”

The primary treatment Novakovich received was hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which exposes patients to pure oxygen at a level of atmospheric pressure equivalent to what a scuba diver would feel at 30 to 60 feet below sea level. Such therapy is thought to improve the body’s ability to fight infection and heal damaged tissue. Typically, it’s used to treat diabetic ulcers, carbon-monoxide poisoning and compromised skin grafts. Insurance companies cover its use for certain conditions.

Novakovich passed the time during his 2½-hour “dives” in the hyperbaric chamber by watching tango videos and World Cup soccer.

Within two weeks, Nair said, she started to see “dramatic improvement.” By the Fourth of July, Novakovich was out of his wheelchair and able to bike 20 miles.

By next month, Novakovich plans to return to teaching Argentine tango, a passion the Yugoslavia native has had for the last 10 years. Nair, he said, will get free tango lessons for life.

Novakovich’s hope is that other diabetics learn from his experience not to take “an unforgiving disease” like diabetes lightly.

“I have perfect blood sugar and perfect cholesterol,” he said. “Everything is perfect. Still, I came into this position because, at one moment, I was arrogant. I thought I was OK, and it almost cost me my life.”

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