Dr. Michael Fuentes and Corpus Christi Rehabilitation Hospital: taking local rehabilitation care to new heights

By: Jessica Dusek
Photos by: Paul Marshall

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“The brain can actually heal itself,” explains Dr. Michael Fuentes of Corpus Christi Rehabilitation Hospital. He describes the cellular healing processes called neuroplasticity and nerve regeneration: “This occurs on nerve cells in the brain that have been lost after a stroke.” With early intervention (acting fast), proper nutrition, therapy and faith, stroke patients have a fighting chance to become independent again and regain quality of life.

Ranked one of the top 10 among acute inpatient rehabilitation hospitals in the United States, Corpus Christi Rehabilitation Hospital has found its way “on the map,” Fuentes says. In 2013, Fuentes was hired as their medical director. The board-certified rehabilitation specialist oversees the program’s patient care and progressive therapies. Identifying a sincere need to serve the Corpus community, the parent company, Ernest, began looking to make the project possible. “We only had 20 rehab beds,” Fuentes explains. “For an area like Corpus, we needed at least 80 beds.”

Led by CEO Nick Nilest, Corpus Christi Rehabilitation Hospital has brought “inpatient rehabilitation into the limelight again in Corpus Christi,” Fuentes says. “They are a great rehabilitation resource for our community. Recently they turned their focus on stroke rehabilitation and are raising the bar for the care a stroke survivor receives by pursuing stroke certification a highly sought after achievement amongst rehabilitation hospitals. My passion is stroke rehab.”

Fuentes, also a Corpus Christi native, focuses on patient recovery, weaving in areas of focus, including brain injury, spinal cord injury management, peripheral nerve disorders, spine and musculoskeletal medicine.


“What we look at when someone has a stroke, is they have to get to the hospital to save as many neurons as possible,” he says. “The patient is stabilized in the acute care setting, and if directed appropriately, the stroke survivor should be transferred only to an acute inpatient rehabilitation center for the best care they can receive – exactly what you get at Corpus Christi Rehabilitation Hospital. There they undergo extensive assessments to qualify their loss of function, so that a customized therapeutic program can be tailored to their needs. They may have a motor deficit, whether it is not being able to move the arm or speak that keeps them from taking care of themselves like they did.”

Giving most of the credit to the amazing therapists, ancillary and administrative team at the hospital, he oversees the patients’ progress by working with other medical and neurological physician staff and by providing musculoskeletal care and rehabilitative expertise in the management of the post-stroke survivor. “The rehabilitative process teaches the patient to compensate for lost functional independence by promoting movement through retraining of self-care skills, mobility, communication, cognition and swallowing using trusted therapeutic techniques and helpful equipment.”

Graduating from the University of Nuevo Leon School of Medicine, Nuevo Leon in Monterrey, Mexico, Fuentes completed his residency at the State University of New York, Buffalo, in physical medicine and rehabilitation. He returned to Corpus and started his family with his wife, Norma (also a physician), and went into private practice in 1998.

In his spare time, he is an avid golfer and an ambassador of the game. He plays in charity golf tournaments. He plays guitar and sings, too. He does music gigs around Corpus, exercising his guitar talents with his band mates and brother, Randy (also a physician), practicing in their spot called “the shed.” He loves to fish and hunt and be outdoors with his close friends and “la familia.”

“En la familia”
“I was inspired by my father, Antonio, to become a physician; he practiced family medicine in Corpus for more than 50 years,” Fuentes describes. “I was always moved by the compassion that he had for the people he cared for. I remember spending summers in his office, which was staffed by my mother, Lita, and her sisters. They all worked so well together. My mom and aunts treated every patient as a friend. It always seemed to me that each patient was someone they grew up with or was the family member of someone they grew up with. I have had the ongoing honor of taking care of some of those people and their family who still honor my dad and his staff for the care they gave.”

Drawn to research on Mexican-American stroke survivors, he follows the BASIC project by Dr. Lewis Morgenstern the University of Michigan. “The Brain Attack Surveillance in Corpus Christi (BASIC) Project is an ongoing stroke surveillance study that began in 1999,” Fuentes explains. “Stroke severity and ischemic stroke subtypes are similar between Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic whites. Mortality following stroke appears to be less in Mexican Americans. In the next five years, it is positioned to delineate trends in stroke rates, and to explore the potential reasons for the increased stroke burden in Mexican Americans, as well as their improved survival.”


Promoting activity
Higher success rates in patient recovery stem from family support. “It’s been an amazing thing to watch – the more family members put their attention on recovery of the patient.” Fuentes recalls one case:

“I had a patient who could not speak or move her right side, whose family was told that was ready to get into a nursing home. The father was crying, and the daughter became upset. Determined, the daughter would go in and help her mother move her arm and legs; she would talk to her gently and massage her face and even began to make her sit and stand and take steps. The people told them [they were] upset that she was pushing her so much, [and] the patient eventually returned home.

“They came back to see me in the office, the mother in a wheelchair not saying anything and the daughter with a picture album in her hand. I asked the patient how she was doing; she didn’t reply right away, prompting me to ask her daughter, who opened the album. I was amazed! It was an album of them all over. They were in the water exercising, walking on the beach and in the Hill Country. I looked back at the patient and stated, ‘It looks like you have been pretty busy.’ She smiled and said in the clearest of speech, ‘I have been! We’ve done a lot together, and we are planning more.’ That said, she rose out of her chair and walked around the room.

“With the daughter’s support and encouragement for activity, the patient eventually regained most of her function, her independence and certainly her quality of life. I was completely amazed! I asked the daughter, ‘What did you do?’ She said, ‘Nothing. I’ve just been loving that she’s here and working with her to move as much as possible.’”

An advocate for health and physical exercise, Fuentes encourages his patients to exercise and commit to a healthy lifestyle. “Here in Corpus, one challenge is getting people all ages with or without disability to be active and stay active. Rehab does that,” he says. “There are always a lot of opportunities for the disabled to get active. Learning the right attitude is most important.”

Active in the community, Fuentes pulls his knowledge into the ring. He contributes time for those fighting competitively for the State of Texas Combative Sport. Fuentes participates alongside other doctors in the community: Dr. Felipe Santos (neurology), Dr. Rob Williams (orthopedics), Dr. Marc Ibanez (internal medicine), Dr. Michael Pendleton (critical illness/internal medicine), Dr. Luis Chapa (ER) and Dr. Ed Garcia (ER). They monitor any injuries that can be threatening to competitors.

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