Island University Dance Professor Jilissa Cotten Works to Recover from Devastating Spinal Cord Injury

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas –There was no reason to think June 18, 2020, would be different from the many other carefree sunbaked days that Jilissa Cotten and her best friend Shawnee Bonnette spent in the surf, waiting on a boogie board, to catch the best wave for a gloriously fun ride back to shore.

The two career dance professionals – Cotten is a Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi Associate Professor and Director of Dance while Bonnette is a Del Mar College Professor of Kinesiology and Director of DMC Ensemble – had discovered the joy of boogie boarding during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown.

Out near the third sandbar roughly parallel to the Michael J. Ellis Beach and Seawall on North Padre Island, Cotten says she was ready to relive the excitement she had enjoyed a few waves before when circumstances beyond their control changed the course of the rest of their lives.

“I was really excited to do it again, and we’re laughing, and Shawnee and I take the same wave,” Cotten said. “As I got on top of the wave, it dropped me straight down. My board went out from under me, and I smacked the left side of my face into the sandbar and my feet came back over the top of my head. I heard my neck crack – and everything immediately went numb: I was completely unable to move.”

From her vantage point, Bonnette wasn’t immediately aware that something was amiss. But Cotten had not yet surfaced and that was not normal. And then Bonnette spotted her – floating face down in the water a fair distance away.

“I knew I had to get to her,” Bonnette said. “It was like God rushed down and pushed me toward her because I was like a deer prancing over the waves – and they were pretty big.”

Bonnette flipped her friend over only to discover blood all over her face. Bonnette’s screams attracted two fellow boogie boarders who helped transport Cotten to shore. As a crowd formed, a bystander – a nurse – came forward and took command of the situation. 

“I kept saying, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe’ and this nurse helped to settle me as best as she could,” Cotten said.

Cotten suffered a spinal cord injury and was paralyzed from the chest down. Cotten spent seven days in the ICU at Bay Area Hospital before transferring to Texas NeuroRehab Center in Austin where she would work with the physical therapy team to learn how to not only walk again but slowly regain her independence.

The rehabilitation schedule at TNC is demanding – patients undergo daily physical and occupational therapy sessions. A natural hard charger, Cotten enthusiastically agreed to the schedule, and in just six weeks, she walked out of TNC on her own two feet.

Cotten says she was grateful to have a large network of family – including her husband Larry Cashion, parents Jean and Johnny, her sister Jamia – and friends to provide comfort during her recovery.

“My parents told all of their friends what was going on,” she said. “Larry was in the hospital with me for almost all of the five and a half weeks I was there. My friends and family were there for me all of time.”

Jilissa Cotten is one of the strongest people I know, and I will forever be amazed by how she overcame such a difficult time. I am immensely grateful to have her as a professor and mentor.

River Thompson '22, Theatre-Acting/Directing with Teacher Certification major

On her own accord, Cotten returned to the Island University in spring 2021. In hindsight, she admits it may have been a bit early in the recovery process, but Cotten says she was happy to be back in a familiar space.

“The university has been amazing – the faculty in the Department of Theatre and Dance have been so understanding and so helpful,” she said. “My students are also so understanding. I can’t demonstrate like I used to, so the way I teach has to be different.”

River Thompson ‘22 has worked with Cotten closely as a student in her classes and as assistant director for “Dance Nation.”  Thompson, who is a Theatre-Acting/Directing with Teacher Certification major, said he was “beyond shocked” when he first heard the news of Cotten’s accident but never doubted for a moment that she would return once he knew she planned to undertake a rigorous rehabilitation schedule.  

“Jilissa has always been a brilliant teacher and the accident did not change that one bit. She continues to dance with the class and demonstrate, but when something comes up that she cannot do physically, she is able to break it down verbally in a way her students can understand and then execute,” Thompson said.

Nursing major Angelina Tapia ’24 has studied with Cotten since her childhood days as a beginning dance student at InStep Dance Studios. Tapia is also working on a minor in dance. “I think everyone in our program became closer when Jilissa returned, especially as she was getting back to the swing of things,” Tapia said. “In January, it was still hard for her, but in comparison to today, you can tell how more mobile she is.”

Thompson also said that Cotten’s determination to recover from such a traumatic injury will always serve as source of deep inspiration.

“Jilissa is one of the strongest people I know, and I will forever be amazed by how she overcame such a difficult time,” he said. “I am immensely grateful to have her as a professor and mentor.” 

In August, Cotten published a video on YouTube to share news about her accident and recovery. In the clip, she notes that her physical therapy team told her that her progress was due to her training and fitness as a dancer.

“Talk about joy! My heart was so happy to be in the studio. What a mood boost it was for my mental health to be creative and expressive with my body,” Cotten said in the video. “Dancing was also a confidence builder for me giving me a sense of strength knowing that I was still on a track to a recovery.”

Through it all, Cotten has leaned on the 30-year friendship with Bonnette as a source of support. Determined to reclaim her desire to enjoy the beach again, the pair returned to the scene of the accident exactly one year later and, once again, enjoyed the magic of a beautiful summer day amid the salty spray of the gulf’s waters.

“Shawnee said that we both died that day, and we’re living new lives now because of the accident. Not just me, but Shawnee, too,” Cotten said. “She’s right. I’m still Jilissa, but I’m also a different person because I have to do things differently. Dance is what I do. I enjoy it. It’s my livelihood. It’s who I am.”