The Marquez Family—Turning Tragedy Into Triumph

By on August 2, 2014
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1Motivational speaker Nicole Marquez is in the business of hope—giving it to others—because, as she can testify, “Life happens, and fortune can change in the blink of an eye. The choices we make amid the unforeseen adversities—the choice of perspective, the choice to persevere, the choice to find the positive—those kinds of choices have a greater bearing on how we weather the storms of life than the circumstances that wreak havoc on our dreams and plans.”

If there is one thing Nicole Marquez has always been, it is consistent—consistently plucky, spunky, headstrong, and positive. It seems she was born with a smile on her face and a “can do” approach to challenges. Certainly God knew exactly what He was doing when He put together this nymph-like creature that embraces each day as the very best day ever just to be alive.

Surviving a fall from the roof of her five-floor apartment building in New York City on August 30, 2008, may have altered some aspects of her life in significant ways, but that consistent plucky, spunky, headstrong, and positive persona is more evident than ever. The smile is still the first thing that grabs your attention. It is almost bigger than she is.

Up until that “bump in the road” as Nicole calls it, her career goal of acting and dancing on Broadway, looked quite promising. She was writing her own success story as the brave and talented ingénue navigating the theatre jungle of New York City. With an uncanny work ethic and that forever-positive attitude God gave her, she had received her certification in Pilates and had also landed a job as a personal trainer at the prestigious Cornell Fitness Club.

On the very afternoon before her fateful fall, Nicole says she had been to her “best audition yet.” She stopped off at a coffee shop on her way home, pulled her laptop out of her backpack and began sending resumes everywhere. Hours passed before she got back to her apartment and realized that she was locked out. It was a Friday night, and her roommates were nowhere to be found.

Leaving her backpack propped against the front door, she took the stairs one flight up to the roof wondering if she could shimmy down the fire escape and climb in a window in her apartment. She peeked over the lip of the rooftop at the fire escape and decided that was not going to work. After peering over the opposite side of the building down the airshaft, she considered trying to reach her own bedroom window that way, but the last thing she remembers was “also a bad idea.”

What happened next, she does not remember. All anyone knows with certainty is that the building superintendent discovered her broken and unconscious body sprawled on her back at the bottom of the airshaft eight hours later. She had no identification on her, but the superintendent recognized the distinctive tennis shoes that walked past him every morning. The friendly little girl from Mississippi irritated the brusque New Yorker day after day by wishing him “Good morning. Have a great day.” He called 911.

The paramedics arrived in record time and took the patient just across the street to Harlem Hospital, the only Level 1 Trauma Center in Manhattan. Her injuries were extensive, but despite several broken ribs, a punctured lung, a broken neck (crushed C-5 and C-6), a broken back (L-4), a bruised heart, a broken pelvis, and lacerations from jagged glass beneath her, Nicole was still breathing. Her prognosis was poor. She was admitted as a Jane Doe while the police detectives searched for her roommates or anyone who could give a positive identification.

Meanwhile in Mississippi

It was a beautiful—but hot—Saturday afternoon in Madison, Mississippi, that last weekend of August. Susan Marquez was at home. Larry was working at the Country Club of Jackson where he has been the Clubhouse manager for the past 27 years. They were planning an anniversary dinner at Ruth’s Chris that evening celebrating their empty nest. Son Joseph was starting his sophomore year at Jones Community College and daughter Nicole was supporting herself and successfully chasing her dreams in NYC.

When the telephone rang, Susan’s eyes fell on the Caller ID, NYPD. Her heart skipped a beat.

A polite detective identified himself giving few details explaining only that Nicole had been discovered unconscious outside her building. He continued to talk, but a shaky and disbelieving Susan could not tell from his words whether Nicole was dead or alive, if she had been mugged, or stabbed, or worse. He gave her the telephone number of the emergency room at Harlem Hospital saying only that the last time he had spoken to the doctors there, Nicole was still alive.

It took several tries to reach anyone in the emergency room. After being disconnected by the switchboard a few times, someone in the ER finally came to the phone and a frantic Susan blurted, “I got a call from this detective who says my daughter, Nicole Marquez, is there.”

The voice replied, “We don’t have anyone here by that name.”

By this time, Susan wondered if someone was playing a horrible joke on her. If only. Then a physician picked up the call asking Susan if her daughter had any distinguishing marks on her body.

Picture this terrified mother imagining every inch of the perfect baby girl she had birthed and bathed and diapered as an infant. There were no birthmarks—not even a freckle! And then she remembered something that had been a source of discord between them a few years earlier. Nicole had gotten a small star tattooed on her wrist while in college. Susan had been furious about it.

But that tattoo was incredibly important in that moment when Susan was 1,200 miles away. In an instant, Jane Doe became Nicole Marquez.

That is so like God. Nothing is ever random—even a tattoo that a mother had chalked up to a childish decision. You have to think God knew all along. Nicole was going to need a “distinguishing mark!”

Miracles in Mid Air

When Susan got off the phone with the physician at Harlem, she immediately called Larry, told him the bits and pieces she knew. He came home right away, and they began trying to get the first available flight headed toward New York City. It would be the following morning on Southwest, and Susan booked it. It would take her as far as Baltimore where she would be on standby for the next leg of the journey. The second available seat was on a Delta flight around noon, and Larry took that one.

Even here, as Larry and Susan, were booking their flights and figuring things out, God was so out in front. Susan explains, “When I got on the plane Sunday morning—you know how you don’t have seat assignments on Southwest—there was this young man and his little boy sitting in the bulkhead. The aisle seat was open, so I sat down. They were both wearing JSU T-shirts.”

Given the circumstances of Susan’s trip, it is amazing that she began a conversation with a stranger at all, but she did. Asking if he had attended JSU, the father allowed that he had, that he liked to go back for a football game at least once a year, and that he had taken his young son to this one. He now lived in Baltimore.

He politely asked where she was headed, and she found herself telling him about Nicole’s accident.

This stranger began to ask the most pointed questions about where her daughter had been taken, what had been done so far. It was clear to even a distraught Susan that this man had some medical training. So she asked, “Are you a doctor or something?”

Medical training? A little. He was on staff at Johns Hopkins, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care. Susan pulled out the notes she had scribbled and told him what she knew.

He was concerned that Nicole’s neck had not been stabilized and felt that was critical to her maximum outcome and it should be done immediately. He also said that she really needed to be transferred to Columbia Presbyterian for the procedure. Susan looked at him and said, “Well, I am just a mama from Mississippi, so how do I make that happen?”

He said, “I can make some phone calls.” When the plane landed in Baltimore, Dr. John Sampson said, “Follow me,” and Susan did.

He got on his cell phone, disappeared for a few minutes to take his son to the restroom, and came back to say, “Everything is going to be okay.” With that, he handed her his card.

Before Susan could ask him anything, her phone rang, and she turned to answer. It was Harlem Hospital and a doctor calling to tell her that there was a good chance Nicole would not survive, but that if she did, she would be a quadriplegic for life.

When she turned around, Dr. Sampson was gone.

What could “everything is going to be okay” possibly mean in the context of this devastating conversation she had just had with the ER doctor at Harlem?

She had no option but to wait for her flight to Long Island, which was another nightmare. She waited hours for a seat.

When she finally arrived in NYC that night, her phone rang about the time she reached the baggage claim. It was the doctor at Harlem Hospital telling her that Nicole was about to be transferred to New York Presbyterian. Second time in two days God had shown up to do “beyond all we could ask or think.” Too huge to be random.

Larry arrived at Harlem Hospital long before Susan and in time to ride in the ambulance with his daughter. It was very, very good to have Larry there to shoulder a lot of the uncertainty in those first few days.

It was very much “touch and go” at New York Presbyterian. Nicole coded three times.

What Next?

It was 4:30 a.m. the next morning, September 1, when Larry and Susan met Nicole’s surgeon in the hallway at New York Presbyterian. Susan says she took one look at this fresh-faced young doctor whom she describes as “Doogie Howser” and confesses that the first words out of her mouth were, “Are you any good?”

He said, “Yeah, I’m pretty good.” It turned out that he was head of his class, chief resident, and to say he was brilliant is an understatement. To see him, however, on any of the many YouTube videos that pop up when you look for “Nicole Marquez” is to completely understand Susan’s misgivings!

The surgery lasted 10 hours, but it did stabilize her neck. It accomplished exactly what Susan’s Southwest seatmate, Dr. John Sampson, had told her had to happen for Nicole to have any hope of future mobility.

The next surgery, September 11, stabilized her lower back. In a few short weeks, intense rehab would begin. Nicole obviously had a long road ahead of her. The Marquez’s would have gone to Timbuktu to ensure Nicole had the very best care, but practically speaking, New York was a long way from home and their support system, and it was incredibly draining on their finances. If there might possibly be another option, other than NYC, they wanted to know.

In the beginning, Nicole’s precarious state from one day to the next made it impossible for her mother, father, and younger brother Joseph to think about anything except being near Nicole. But as Susan says, “The reality was that Larry needed to be here at home to work. I started saying, ‘Will you please check Methodist Rehab because I know people with spinal cord injuries who have been there.’ They kept blowing me off telling me there was a place in Atlanta if I really thought we needed to go closer to home.”

Susan’s reply was, “That’s not the point. Atlanta. New York. It’s all the same in how it is going to affect our family.” She continued to ask them to just look at Methodist Rehab. If it lacked what Nicole needed, then she would move on and they would figure it out. She felt like all of her pleas fell on deaf ears for days, and then, the physical therapist appeared one morning with an incredulous look on her face.

Her news was there are only 13 certified spinal cord injury centers in the United States and—bingo—one of them is Methodist Rehab in Jackson, Mississippi.

Susan, who, like her daughter, has a resilient sense of humor deadpanned, “You don’t say.”

The therapist went on to tell them how important it would be for the family to be together in the midst of their support group—she reiterated every single thing Susan had been saying for days. Whatever their new “normal” was going to be, it would be best to discover it or create it in the very place they all loved most. So the challenge of the day was how to get Nicole, in her present state, back to Mississippi and, ultimately, to Methodist.

After all, it’s not like she could just walk her little self down the jet way to get on a commercial airline.

Larry and Susan began to research this hurdle.

And God Shows Up—Once More

There were so many critical criteria involved in transporting a patient in Nicole’s condition. She had to remain lying down. She had a trachea tube and was basically on life support 24/7. A pulmonologist and a critical care nurse would need to be with her throughout the transfer. The air ambulance could fly out of Teterboro airport, a stone’s throw from the hospital, but with a price tag of about $15,000. Because there was a rehab hospital in NYC with the services Nicole would require, there was no way insurance would pay even one penny toward a transfer to Mississippi.

Back home, word had spread quickly about Nicole’s accident. The broad and diverse network of friends, co-workers, church family, and the entire Jackson metro community looked for daily Caring Bridge updates on Nicole. Her story had made the national news. Every one—friends and strangers alike—constantly communicated their prayers for recovery. The question most often asked was, “What can we do to help?”

The outpouring of love was never more evident than a month later when Larry and Susan were able to secure that special air transport to bring their daughter home to Mississippi. Several made monetary gifts; some held fundraisers. It was a collective effort beautifully executed. “It was difficult for us to accept at first,” says Susan, “but the spirit of generosity was so strong, and it made it possible for us to pay many medical bills.”

Physical Therapy and Beyond

It was late September when the air ambulance delivered their precious cargo to Hawkins Field in Jackson. Nicole’s first stop was Specialty Hospital where she had two physical therapists (she describes them as “phenomenal”) who began the arduous rebuilding process. She had a few tedious hurdles to climb before she was ready to begin the next phase of rehabilitation at Methodist.

Nicole pushed hard, encouraged by her therapists who went above and beyond the call of duty because they recognized how hard she was willing to work. She left Specialty four weeks later ready to put herself through the most demanding physical challenges of her life as a fulltime patient at Methodist Rehab. Physical therapy sessions are practically non-stop for hours each day. Progress came in baby steps—but progress did continue. Every tiny victory was a celebration.

Three-and-one-half laborious and unremitting months later, she did what nobody had thought she would ever do—she walked out! Wobbly and with a little help, but she did it. In Nicole’s mind, it was a new beginning, but just a beginning.

Even after discharge from the hospital, physical therapy continued on a daily basis as an outpatient. Six years have passed, and periodic outpatient physical and occupational therapy continues as well as regular work with a personal trainer, Eclesius Franklin.

The upbeat attitude, coupled with Nicole’s extraordinary grit and quick wit, has been a magnet drawing every professional involved in her recovery to fall in love with her. Much like a personal fan club, they have all remained in touch these many years. As she looks back over the specific individuals who played a part—from the neurosurgeons and many other physicians to the nurses and the physical therapists—she sees the hand of God at work. There has always been a connection and a level of communication between them that had a language all its own. It was as though God reached down and made certain that Nicole’s “handlers” were tailor-made for her specifically.

Nicole credits her supportive family as an essential piece of the “putting-Humpty Dumpty-together-again” miracle. There is a lot of good natured banter in the Marquez family circle. Laughter comes easy, and the affection for each other is apparent.

Nicole says, “One thing I really enjoy about my family is that nobody is giving me, you know, nobody is giving me special attention. They are like, ‘we’re going to treat you the way we’ve always treated you.’ That makes me feel so happy.”

“Somebody was always there,” Nicole says of her five-month hospital stay. Their presence and strength kept her strong and positive.

Joseph, who is six years younger than Nicole, took on a “coach” role in the beginning. He postponed his sophomore year wanting to be close to Nicole. He was her great motivator, setting the glass of water just out of reach so that she had to stretch her limits just a little every time. Larry came by every day on his way to work, and he was always going to make his little girl smile.

Susan recalls Dr. Sampson, the Heaven-sent physician she met on the Southwest flight on that frightening first leg of her journey, telling her that her job was to be her daughter’s advocate. He told her to ask questions, to speak up because, as he said, “We, in the medical field, can be a little bit intimidating.” And Susan took that advice to heart. “I realized,” she said, “that the more I asked questions, the more everybody was willing to explain things to us.”

At first she focused only on whatever the immediate crisis was. She tried not to think beyond what was right in front of her. When she tried to pray, the words would not come.

Sorting It All Out

Susan was the picture of strength and composure on the outside. She was trying hard to be the same self-confident, in-control mother she had always been, but she was not feeling in control of anything. She kept the Caring Bridge updates flowing, fielded calls answering the constant question, “What can we do to help?” with “Please pray.” And yet, she was finding it very hard herself to actually pray.

There was a degree of anger at God in those first days. Understandable questions like, “God! What is this? I have faithfully prayed for this child every day and every night. I trusted her to you!” Then, she would feel guilty questioning God, but her human mind wanted Him to please explain why this had happened to Nicole. It was just so hard.

One afternoon, several weeks after the accident, things in Nicole’s room were very quiet when Susan’s “aha” moment came. Until then, she had only asked why. She had not really stopped to listen. It came to her as clearly as if God sat down beside her and looked her in the eye because she knew He was speaking to her heart very personally.

“Susan, I did take care of her. I carried her down, lay on the ground with her until she was discovered. I made sure the best EMTs and paramedics got there to move her across the street to the hospital. And the best doctors were there to stabilize her and got her home. I put that doctor on the plane with you. I am putting the pieces together—I am in control.”

She knew at that moment that whatever their new “normal” was going to be, it was going to be the perfect plan of a loving Heavenly Father. She did not understand the “why,” but she no longer needed to. That was a turning point for her.

Susan, a well-known, freelance writer, is presently working on a book from a mother’s perspective. “It will be a faith-filled testimony of the lessons we learned as a family,” Susan says.

Nicole’s Plan B

When Nicole was a college student at USM, she set her mind on a career in theatre and dance. Even though she had been away from dance for several years at that point, and even though USM is known for a very tough dance department, and even though she had to basically start ballet from the most elementary lesson as though she were five years old, she did it. There was never a second she doubted that it was worth every hour, every late night, and every ounce of effort. After graduating, she went on to study in highly competitive and selective programs at places like the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky. Many of those connections made it possible for her to get to New York in the first place.

Four weeks post-accident, when Nicole waved goodbye amid much fanfare at Presbyterian hospital, she was still connected to a respirator and had a trachea tube attached. To the many medical personnel who came to give her a hug and wish her well, she mouthed, “Thank you for everything! I’ll be back, and I’ll dance on Broadway.”

The story of the aspiring dancer who survived the fall from the top of her apartment building had already made national news. Word of her spirit and her fight spread literally everywhere. A few months later, as Nicole had regained some mobility as well as her voice, invitations began to come in asking her if she might tell her story here and there—Rotary clubs, chambers of commerce, and then the annual kickoff meeting for the New York Presbyterian Hospital’s annual meeting for physicians and managers at the New York Hilton, the International Women’s Leadership Conference in Honolulu, the Black Hills Brain Injury Conference in South Dakota. She was featured on CBS’s The Early Show.

Suddenly, Nicole was using all of her training on stage, in front of an audience, communicating with an audience, but in a very different way than she had originally envisioned. Nicole says, “How could I ask for more?”

“Before the accident, I had a single, overarching goal for my life. When it was derailed, I had no choice but to reevaluate everything. ‘Broadway’ was the simple way to describe what I wanted, but when I dug deeper, I understood that what that word really represented was a desire to perform and reach out to people. And I realized that was something I could still do.”

Her dreams of dancing have not been taken from her. In fact, she has danced on several occasions and has been invited to participate in a summer intensive in August with the renowned Axis dance company of Oakland, California. “I’m not willing to give up on my longtime goal to dance, maybe even on the big stage in New York City,” she says. “But these days, I’m more willing to take things as they come.”

For now, Nicole’s motivational speaking career has a life of its own. Nicole can be found at www.youcantstopthisdancer.com. As she says on her website, “Helping and giving hope is my calling.” And she is never going to give it up!