Jennifer Grey’s Journey
Nobody puts Baby in the corner.
It’s one of the great lines from Hollywood movies. When Patrick Swayze reached out his hand at the end of “Dirty Dancing” to pull a shy, pretty wallflower onto the stage with him, it touched America’s heart, and did what movies do best.
It made us want to fall in love — especially with someone who would find us when we were hiding. It made us want to dance.
For the last 23 years, however, that actress, Jennifer Grey, has not been dancing. Shy of the fame the film brought her, and suffering chronic pain from a tragic car accident, America’s sweetheart banished herself to the proverbial corner.
Now “Baby” is back in the spotlight, delighting audiences on ABC’s hit show “Dancing With the Stars” with her new professional partner, Derek Hough.
But the truth is that Jennifer, 50, would not be waltzing around without the skill and expertise of DISC Sports & Spine Center, and Dr. Robert Bray, the man Jennifer credits for saving her life. Twice.
“I had been asked to do DWTS nine or ten times,” Jennifer explains. “Every year since the show first began. I never considered it.”
The reasons are complicated. After “Dirty Dancing” came out in 1988, Jennifer became a big star. Everyone in the world assumed she was a dancer. She is not.
Jennifer is simply an actress – without dance experience – who played a girl who was learning to dance. The role, and her brilliant performance in it, turned out to be an iconic one. The sudden (and enduring) fame made Jennifer so self-conscious in her normal life as a wife and mother that as the years passed, she grew afraid to go to exercise classes that involved any type of dance. She feared that people in the class would be watching her, expecting her to be perfect, and judging her when they saw that she was not. Jennifer stopped doing the one thing that had brought her so much joy: dancing.
The other reason she kept turning down the coveted slot the producers wanted her to take on DWTS is that way back in 1988, one week before “Dirty Dancing” opened, Jennifer was on vacation in Ireland with her then-boyfriend Matthew Broderick when their car was involved in a head-on collision. The occupants of the other car were killed. Jennifer felt lucky that her life was spared. She tried to ignore the pain that followed. “I knew that I had horrible whiplash,” she says, “but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized how serious it was.”
Jennifer turned to other forms of exercise to stay fit and healthy: yoga, Pilates and weight training, but everything she tried took a toll on her. “My neck became such an issue that I stopped working out my upper body,” she says.
After Patrick Swayze’s death from pancreatic cancer last year, Jennifer remembered how fearless he was, and became inspired to take more risks. She wanted to stop hiding from life and job opportunities in her field of acting. She wanted to stop being that wallflower he’d once pulled out of a corner. The next time the producers from DWTS called, Jennifer finally said yes.
She needed to pass a routine physical first. Friends referred her to Dr. Robert Bray, because she wanted to discuss her neck pain with an expert.
“Basically I went to Dr. Bray, because I heard he was the best from people I respected,” Jennifer says. “He was by far the best of everybody, and his name kept coming up. When I went in for my exam, I thought Dr. Bray was going to say, “You’re fine, go have fun,’ but I was completely stunned when his response to my films was, ‘Your spinal cord is so compressed that if you slipped or fell or got rear-ended in traffic, you’d be paralyzed. Immediately.’”
“When I saw Jennifer, her exam was very abnormal,” explains Dr. Bray. “When you tapped her reflexes, they were very, very jumpy, which is a sign there is something pressing on the spinal cord.”
He took x-rays of her neck, with her head bending forward and back. “Her neck had a very dramatic angulation, and a slippage of one vertebrae on the other, to an extent where it was dangerous,” Dr. Bray says. “The amount of slippage that was there was actually cutting off the area where the spinal canal could run through.”
He sent her for an MRI. “Jennifer’s longstanding injury had resulted in ligament laxity and instability,” Dr. Bray says. “That was resulting in a dangerous level of compromise of her spinal cord and some early damage to her spinal cord.”
The spinal cord needs room to live. It’s surrounded by fluid. The hole that the spinal cord runs through, the spinal canal, needs to be about an inch wide (15 or 16 mm). If it gets below about 7 or 8 mm, the spinal cord itself has no room left to sit, or live, without fluid around it.
“As little as 100 grams of pressure, just a simple touch, of pressure on the spinal cord at that level can damage it permanently,” says Dr. Bray.
“Jennifer had compromised her canal so severely that there was no fluid around the spinal cord. None. It was already starting to do damage, the joint was unstable or slipping,” Dr. Bray says. “That means a fall, a sudden head movement, a minor rear-end accident, a slip on the dance floor, and she’d be paralyzed. It really was that bad.”
“We didn’t give her any options,” Dr. Bray admits. “She was told no. No, she cannot dance. No, she cannot do any type of workout. No, she cannot play any sports.” He adds, “Frankly, I told her she probably shouldn’t be driving around.”
Jennifer needed to have neck surgery. “She couldn’t look up to kiss her husband good-night,” Dr. Bray adds. “She could not raise her head, because her head was aimed at the ground. I had to sit down so she could talk to me. She couldn’t actually look up to see me. Her head wouldn’t go up.” (Dr. Bray stands 6’5”. Jennifer Grey is 5’3”.)
The position that Jennifer took in the Viennese waltz on the first night of competition, with her head inclined gracefully back in her partner’s arms, would not have been possible for Jennifer to do just a few months ago, Dr. Bray says. “Her head was falling off, forwards, because of this joint that was unstable.”
“I was so frightened by the prospect of spinal surgery,” Jennifer admits. “Just the fact that I knew he was the best. I knew I’d be in the greatest hands.”
“The first operation she needed was to put her head back into position and lock this joint in place that was grossly unstable and frankly dangerous,” Dr. Bray explains.
Dr. Bray performed an anterior fusion through the front of her neck to put Jennifer’s neck back into alignment. “We took out the disc completely, lifted the neck up and put it back over where it belongs. This reduced the angulation and instability. Then we put in a titanium plate,” Dr. Bray says, “Which was actually one of my own plates, an RSB plate that I designed and put through the FDA. It locked that joint back into position.”
The surgery worked beautifully. “It changed the angle of her head over 20 degrees,” Dr. Bray says, and got Jennifer out of danger.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t all the surgery the actress needed to have. As a result of the long-term effects of trauma caused by the old car accident, Jennifer had what Dr. Bray calls “accelerated life wear and tear” at other levels, which caused her shoulder pain and arm pain. Dr. Bray needed to operate on Jennifer a second time to remove spurs from her neck that were causing her that pain.
But before he did that, Dr. Bray noticed a strange lump on Jennifer’s throat. “It was a noticeable lump. You could see it across the room,” he says. Jennifer told Dr. Bray that she’d had it checked out. It had been diagnosed as a benign goiter, or thyroid nodule. She and her other doctors were watching it.
But on the MRI, something about the lump looked odd to Dr. Bray. He advised Jennifer to have it taken out, or at the very least biopsied again, before he would perform the second spine surgery she needed.
Jennifer went away to have the goiter biopsied, and returned to Dr. Bray with the news that the thyroid experts said she could have it taken out or not. It didn’t really matter. She didn’t want to deal with it. She didn’t want to have yet another surgery.
But Dr. Bray felt uneasy. “Finally, I said, ‘Jennifer, look. Just go have it taken out. It doesn’t look right. It has the wrong feel to it.’ I don’t even know what exactly was leading me to push her to have the goiter taken out, because it’s not me who does that surgery. I just said: ‘Jennifer. Go. Have. It. Taken. Out.’”
It turned out there was a malignant cancer in that lump.
“Had it broken out of the capsule of the thyroid…it’s a very, very bad outcome,” Dr. Bray says softly. “That type of cancer spreads very quickly through the body.” Jennifer would have died.
Instead, Jennifer underwent two surgeries last December to have the cancerous thyroid removed, but did not need radiation or chemotherapy.
Finally cancer-free, Jennifer returned to Dr. Bray in January 2010 for her second spine surgery at DISC It involved drilling holes in the back of her neck to get rid of the spurs, but would free her from the chronic pain she’d been trying to ignore for so long. “I didn’t want to fuse multiple levels in her neck, because she wouldn’t have any range of motion,” Dr. Bray says. “So we fused the one that was unstable and cleaned up the other ones to get her out of pain.”
“It was the most optimal surgical procedure you could ever imagine. I was so impressed with Dr. Bray’s overall acumen, and I trusted him. The quality of DISC and the nursing staff, two nurses per person, was amazing.”
“The fact that Dr. Bray has such amazing follow up care at DISC, I just felt completely taken care of,” Jennifer adds. “Going for rehab at the Soft Tissue Center with Dr. Horrigan, the fact that they take care of all the Olympic athletes, I felt so lucky.”
At DISC, Jennifer underwent rehab with former UCLA’s strength and conditioning coach, E.J. “Doc” Kreis, who alongside Dr. Horrigan frequently works with the star athletes who come to DISC for treatment.
“All the Olympic athletes say there is nobody better than Doc Kreis,” Jennifer says. “It was so thrilling to train at that level,” she adds, excitedly. “It was a very inspiring community to be able to rub elbows with those guys. To have Olympians as my lifting partners was quite the bomb.”
“I just felt like I was in the most knowledgeable place with the most experienced people. DISC is the highest level of excellence,” she says.
Fully healed and feeling great, Jennifer is glad to be able to compete in another dance contest. A real one this time.
“It’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” Jennifer says, driving home from the studio after a long day of working out on the dance floor. She has just come from fittings for her latest ballroom dance costume, a backless number that involves gold fringe with rhinestones. “It’s like a furry bathing suit dusted with Tinker Bell gold,” she says, giddy.
You can hear the delight in her voice, yet at the same time, Jennifer is exhausted. Who wouldn’t be? The show has put the actress on a brutal schedule. The dancing is non-stop. Seven days a week, for six hours a day, Jennifer is pushing her body to its limit – but loving it. The actress has never looked better in her life. Inside or out.
“I have so much confidence in Dr. Bray that I wish he could take care of all my medical needs,” Jennifer says. “He restored to me a life I didn’t even know I was missing for 23 years.”