Michael Commendatore took his wife to Costa Rica. He endured a 48-hour odyssey back to the states with a T7 SCI

Michael Commendatore is a Renaissance Man. At 48 years old, he already had careers as a high school teacher, private school instructor and administrator, and–during the COVID-19 pandemic, when teaching dramatically changed–he pivoted again and founded a successful home remodeling business. And he lives in a home that was formerly owned by the Pittsburgh Mob Elite…yes, that Mob, complete with hidden gun stash compartments.

Dream Vacation

But, it was at the height of his remodeling venture—he had work scheduled for six months–that Commendatore, in October of 2021, took his wife, Erin, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Costa Rica for her birthday. “it was her dream destination,” he says. “While there, we did all the fun things: zip lining, tours through the rain forests, and so on.” The main event, however, Commendatore, smiles, “Is I surprised her with a wedding vow renewal.” According to Commendatore, the trip was perfect…until the last day.

Boogie Up, and Down

The couple were packed and excited to see their two sons, aged 14 and 17, who were back in the Pittsburgh area. “The hotel offered us some boogie boards and beach time while we waited for our shuttle transfer,” remembers Commendatore, “and we took the offer.” Commendatore describes himself as active: “I was always hiking, biking and skateboarding with my kids,” took one last ride on the boogie board when a wave grabbed a hold of him. “It took me vertically straight down, head-first, to the bottom to the ocean.” “I’ve had a ton of injuries in my life, and as I was traveling to the bottom of the ocean, I started taking a physical inventory,” remembers Commendatore. He knew there was something wrong. Erin pulled him out of the water. A series of well-meaning vacationers and locals lifted Commendatore into a chair to make him comfortable, thinking he had hit his head and had a concussion. “No,” he thought, as he accepted the help, “It’s my back!”

Forty-Eight Hours

He had enough movement to put weight on his legs to take baby-steps–with help. Commendatore made it to his room, not realizing he had sustained a spinal cord injury (SCI). Commendatore learned that any medical options in Costa Rica would be at his own expense. He opted to go to the hospital—in Costa Rica. “It was a little one-room building,” he remembers. The hospital did some x-rays, found nothing, gave Commendatore some Tylenol and sent him back to the hotel. The next day, the Commendatores took a 90-minute shuttle to the airport, and then he endured the flight from Costa Rica to Houston, all this time in pain, and undiagnosed. He then gutted out the final leg of the journey to Pittsburgh. Once Commendatore arrived home, He went to UPMC Passavant. They did their own assessments, and within a few hours Commendatore was whisked into surgery. It had been 48 hours since his injury, and he had traveled from Costa Rica to Pittsburgh in that time—with an undiagnosed incomplete T7 SCI.

Faith and Fractures

As Commendatore’s surgery was about to begin, Erin wanted to leave to get something to eat. The surgery team strongly encouraged her to remain in the hospital, knowing Commendatore’s surgery would be risky. Commendatore recounts: “They said to her, ‘I don’t know what your faith is or what you believe, but there is no way he should have been able to have made it back here, in what he had been through in this condition.’” After 48 hours of grueling travel, and hours of delicate surgery, Commendatore finally had a diagnosis: fractured T-6 and unstable T-7 vertebrae, several broken ribs, and an incomplete spinal cord injury. Forty-eight hours may not seem like a long time, but in the SCI world, every un-stabilized minute is an opportunity for more destruction, paralysis, and even death. Commendatore, by the grace of God, escaped all three.

Short Stay

After the requisite stay at UPMC Passavant’s surgical units, Commendatore was transferred to UPMC Passavant’s inpatient Physical Therapy unit, where he received three hours a day of physical and occupational therapy for a month. Commendatore was disappointed with the length of stay in inpatient therapy. “I felt like I was being “fast-tracked” out of inpatient rehab,” he muses, based on his own observations and what insurance would authorize. “I did not feel like I was physically ready to leave,” he states emphatically, a sentiment heard throughout the SCI community when it comes to inpatient rehab stays. Commendatore also suffered a concussion when he hit his head on the ocean floor, and seven months later he is still recovering from the effects of that, particularly with memory and sleep issues.

Long-Haul Diagnosis

What is curious with Commendatore’s case is that doctors are still trying to determine the extent of his spinal cord damage. After a short stint with home PT and OT, Commendatore took a break from therapies while doctors re-evaluate his condition. Commendatore’s life now is still filled with nightmares of his ordeal. And with the combination of PA winters and COVID-19, he has been homebound. However, ever the optimist, Commendatore is looking forward to his son’s outdoor lacrosse practices, which he used to help coach. And true to his Renaissance Man spirit, Commendatore is working on reinventing himself again: this time, as an author.

Writing Down the Bones

Commendatore has written 60,000 words, and although he has no working title, he’s describing what he is learning about the world of the disabled. His goal is to walk unassisted. “But don’t get me wrong,” he counters, “there are hard days, but I’m happy. I’m still very grateful for where I am.” But until then, and as a true Renaissance Man–Commendatore is reinventing himself yet again–this time as an author. He’s writing a book about his experiences. If his book is anything like the man…it will be one wild read.

All You Have to Do Is Ask

While at Magee, Spatocco couldn’t wait to get on the unit’s Functional Electronic Stimulation (FES) Bike. Spatocco asked his union to help fund an FES bike. “Lo and behold they did!” exclaims Spatocco. The Union put up $8,000, and then they helped fundraised the rest.” Now, Spatocco owns his “dream” recovery apparatus, an FES Stim bike at home. He tries to use it three days a week if he has someone to help get him onto the bike and attached to the electrode.



Have Patience: “I compare this process to a wave: there are times you are high, on the crest of the wave, and then in the trough. You always even out

Suck it up and ask for help: “I’ve always been the one to help others; it’s been challenging for me to be able to ask for, and accept help.”