Reeve Foundation's Scientific Advisory Board: Rex Marco

marco rexxRex Marco, M.D., was born in California to a medical family. His grandfather was a general surgeon; one uncle was a head and neck surgeon, another was a dentist and a third was a psychologist. So naturally, when he was thinking about what he wanted to be when he grew up, Marco thought about following in their footsteps. He started off in head and neck surgery, like his uncle, but then switched to orthopedic surgery at the University of California Davis, where he developed a deep interest in spine surgery and limb recovery.

When his father developed metastatic colon cancer in 1993, from which he ultimately died, he felt compelled to expand his focus to include oncology. “After my residency, I began training to treat patients with orthopedic tumors and spinal disorders,” says Marco. He remains one of only a few surgeons in the world with the skills and experience to treat patients with complex spinal disorders and musculoskeletal tumors.

Providing Hope to Kids with Spinal Anomalies

Throughout his career, Marco has tackled the most complex cases ranging from teens living with paralysis to children with tumors embedded in their spines. He started his career at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston in 2000, where he regularly performed limb salvage surgery on adults and children with bone tumors — patients who might have previously undergone amputation. His techniques enabled children to use their legs and arms without a prosthesis.

A humanitarian and dedicated physician, Marco also treated patients in Haiti after an earthquake devastated the island in 2010, and later traveled to the West Bank, Kenya and Guatemala on medical relief missions.

After leaving MD Anderson, Marco had a brief stint in private practice before joining the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston in 2005, where he led the spine trauma and musculoskeletal oncology service. “As a musculoskeletal oncologist, I took care of dozens of people with pressure sores and helped their wounds heal by removing the infected bone and covering the soft tissue,” Marco says.

These experiences primed Marco to really understand the downstream effects of spinal cord injuries (SCIs) — knowledge he never imagined would apply to him personally. A busy family man, he enjoyed mountain biking, snowboarding, and practicing yoga. He also spent years on the baseball field with his sons, where his only title was “Coach Marco.”

Losing Mobility, Gaining Perspective

In July 2019, Marco was riding his bike with some friends in Memorial Park when his tire got stuck in a ditch. The forward momentum catapulted him headfirst over his handlebars and he broke his neck. Marco heard a crack but felt no pain. He couldn’t feel anything.

“I knew I had a spinal cord injury,” says Marco, who used his knowledge of yoga, mindfulness and deep breathing to calm himself. “I also knew I had to get to the hospital as soon as possible.”

Marco knew about a research project, which showed that the timing of spinal cord decompression after injury plays a key role in functional outcomes. So, in the moments after the accident, he directed his friends to support his spine to prevent further injury and coordinated his own rescue.

“Because of that study, I was able to get into the operating room within 2.5 hours of my injury,” Marco says. “When I worked in that same hospital, I couldn’t get patients in the operating room before the next day.”

As Marco lay in the intensive care unit after surgery, he realized that so many of his roles — father, husband, esteemed surgeon, athlete — had come to a screeching halt. But he also found himself thinking about Christopher Reeve, and what was possible for people with SCIs because of Reeve’s vision.

A New Normal

Within hours of his injury, Marco started rebuilding his life in his mind. He knew he wanted to raise money for research and help advance treatments for people with SCIs. And with the launch of The Rex Marco, M.D. Fund of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, his efforts have helped accelerate groundbreaking SCI research, as well as provide advocacy, support and resources to improve quality of life for those impacted by paralysis.

But during those early hours at the hospital, a positive outlook was sometimes elusive. One of the nurses told his 21-year-old son, “Your dad is never going to walk again.” “That’s a hopeless statement,” Marco says. “But there is hope for all patients living with spinal cord injury. Christopher Reeve instilled hope in the scientific community that we can restore function and even cure some patients with spinal cord injury.”

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Marco’s very life is proof that developing protocols to optimize the timing of decompression and surgery, for example, can make a tremendous difference in functional outcomes. Today, he serves as Chief Medical Ambassador for the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and sits on the Foundation’s newly established Scientific Advisory Board, among several other research groups aimed at improving the lives of people with SCI.

Marco still sees patients in the clinic once a week, mostly those with spinal disorders. “My patients are an inspiration to me,” says Marco, who often does rehab next to his own patients, many who were injured years ago. “I’ve seen what they were able to do with their recovery and I’m learning and growing right alongside them.”

Today, Marco is a beacon of hope for people with SCI, and the injury has given him an opportunity to delve more deeply into mindfulness. “I knew it was important for me to accept my injury; to start every day with gratitude and positive intentions — May I be kind and compassionate. Humble and accepting. Honest and accountable. Forgiving and committed,” he says. “When I notice myself struggling with negative thoughts, I pause, breathe and relax.”

Dr. Marco is part of our newly launched Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation Scientific Advisory Board. It is comprised of senior and junior investigators from across the globe and in numerous scientific sectors and serves as a sounding board for the Foundation, offering innovative ideas and honest feedback as we search for the most promising research and development opportunities that will provide the greatest impact for community members.

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This blog was written by the Reeve Foundation for educational purposes. For more information please reach out to

Reeve Staff

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.