A High-flying Career

PT Profile: High-flying Career 

By Nancie C. Menapace

In a packed circus tent, the lights dim, and the bell horn rings, signaling "Showtime!" Lights come up, and Cirque du Soleil performers fly through the air from all directions, eliciting great cheers from the rapt audience. But while the audience sees only the thrilling stunts, Cora Maglaya, PT, ATC, CSCS, stands quietly backstage, walkie-talkie in hand, watching every move for signs of injury, ready to spring into action as needed.

What might seem like a dream for many PTs was just another typical day for Maglaya, who worked for Cirque du Soleil on its South American tour. Referred to as a physiotherapist by the Canadian based company, Maglaya says Oprah Winfrey inspires her with the statement, "Preparedness meets opportunity." She describes the Cirque experience as her dream job turned into reality. "Working on tour is a great life lesson, not only learning your craft treating elite performers who do superhuman feats with their bodies, but also navigating in a different culture. Your survival instincts turn on immediately, and you find solutions to complex problems both in and outside of your job."

Before flying high with Cirque du Soleil, Maglaya, born and raised in Palos Heights, Illinois, worked as a physical therapist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and was a staff athletic trainer at the University of Southern California's Center for Athletic Medicine. She holds undergraduate degrees in both athletic training and kinesiotherapy from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a physical therapy agree from Daemen College in Amherst, New York, and she completed a sports physical therapist fellowship from Duke University specializing in Division I athletics. While a Fellow at Duke, she conducted research on dancers at the American Dance Festival. She played an active role in sports medicine for Duke's sports.

But it was her interest in performing arts that led her to tour with Cirque du Soleil. Working backstage and behind the scenes was, for Maglaya, spectacular. "It is an adrenaline rush watching a new skill being practiced in training, then seeing it debut in the show." She would memorize the timing of the skill and know, in a split second, when the trick either hit or missed. This intimate, detailed knowledge of every act in the show enabled her to anticipate and react to injury based on the mechanics of the fall. She exclusively treated the performance artists, determining their workload changes, performing advanced emergency response treatments and providing rehabilitation treatments before, during and after the show.

Her patient list on the tour included acrobats, high-flying aerialists, contortionists, trapeze artists, singers, characters and musicians. Many of the athletes came from a competitive national or Olympic-level background and thus already had a long list of injuries and previous surgeries that needed to be closely monitored.

Her mentor, Cindy Bailey, PT, DPT, OCS, SCS, ATC, EMT, assistant professor of clinical practice in the Department of Biokinesiology & Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California, notes that Maglaya's Cirque du Soleil experience was certainly a unique opportunity for any healthcare practitioner.

"She took on this task with enthusiasm not only for the unique, fun nature of the job but for the challenges of treating elite athletes and performers. She excels in situations in which she must take her knowledge and apply it to different situations."

Never a Dull Moment

Around her 6-day workweeks (usually including two shows per day and ending as late as 11:30 pm), Maglaya found time for sightseeing at local museums, waterfalls, shops, and tourist attractions.

"The Cirque tour is like a portable traveling city and an extended family," she said, and some of her favorite memories are of just spending relaxed time with her tour friends or the locals she met.

"You learn not to get attached to material things in life," she said. Whatever she bought had to fit into her luggage. "So buying that trendy lamp at the local flea market was not going to work."

Working on the tour and traveling around South America wasn't all bright lights and excitement, however. There were barriers to overcome, such as being away from family, friends, and favorite shops and restaurants. But for Maglaya, the tradeoff was being able to fall in love with the daily challenges of adjusting to a new language, culture, food, and climate, even though hotel life meant constantly having to locate the nearest laundromat, post office, and grocery store. She also had to learn to adjust to life without some of the "givens" to which she had been accustomed, such as purified water, riding in a car, and even speaking the same language. She was challenged by language barriers both within the Cirque tour and in Brazil.

Because she played such a vital role on the tour and was the connection to the local medical community when referrals were needed, she learned to speak Portuguese to help her communicate with local medical personnel, as well as bits of other languages, including Russian, to communicate with many of the performers. Artists came from all over the globe, so it was not unusual to have a patient's chart come to her written in multiple languages.

"Cora is a perfect fit for practicing physical therapy in an international setting," says Kerry Mullenix, PT, ATC, LAT, director of athletic rehabilitation at Duke University, "She is sensitive to diversity, caring of the individual, and dedicated to providing a high level of care."

With her time on the tour over, Maglaya is now back in Southern California and enjoys her current position at Athletic Physical Therapy, where she continues to treat high-performance athletes, building on her experience on the Cirque tour.

Perspectives for New Professionals of the American Physical Therapy Association, Supplement to Physical Therapy, May 2008, pages 27-28 

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