A Dance to Remember

After a traumatic spine injury that required two complex surgeries at NewYork-Presbyterian, a dancer overcame the odds to not only walk again, but perform in her own one-woman show.

Nicole Marquez performing on stage

Photography by Nina Wurtzel | @wurtzelphotos

In 2008, Nicole Marquez, a lifelong dancer, moved to New York City to pursue her dreams of becoming a Broadway performer. But eight months later she suffered a traumatic fall from a six-story building that left her seriously injured. In the accident, Nicole broke her pelvis and all the ribs on the left side of her body. Her lung was punctured and collapsed, and she had significant blood loss. She broke her neck and her back, and one of the bones in her neck had been crushed, its pieces forced into her spinal cord.

Laying in her hospital room at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, Nicole remembers her surgeon, Dr. Peter Angevine, who is now the director of Och Spine at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester, telling her parents that the injuries were incredibly complex. He didn’t know if she was ever going to walk again, let alone dance. But he wasn’t going to give up on her.

“I remember hearing that and thinking no, I’m going to dance again,” says Nicole. “Dr. Angevine approached this with such compassion and honesty. I could tell he cared about me and about my parents, who had come up from Mississippi to be with me. To him I wasn’t just a body in a bed. I was a person.”

Nicole went on to spend a month at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia after her accident, undergoing two 10-hour surgeries to stabilize her neck and back. She then moved to Mississippi to live with her parents as she did intensive physical therapy.

“I had never seen a case like Nicole’s before, and I haven’t seen once since,” said Dr. Angevine. “She had two complex fractures, one in her cervical spine and one in her lumbar spine. It’s not uncommon to see one or the other, but not together.”

Nicole improved to the point where she could live on her own, then moved to New Orleans and began working as an extra in television shows and movies. She also began working with a friend, Julie Turner, who specializes in movement therapy. Through this relationship, Nicole discovered that her dreams of getting back to dance were much closer than they had seemed.

Nicole Marquez standing with Dr. Peter Angevine

Nicole Marquez and Dr. Peter Angevine in October of 2023.

Dance also helped Nicole work through the trauma of her accident. “I could still express myself through movement. Obviously it’s not going to look the same, but I could still move and express my emotions,” she says “I had been holding in so much fear after my accident, but learned I could get those feelings out through movement.”

Recently, Nicole traveled to New York from her home in New Orleans to perform a piece she and Julie had choreographed, a dance that tells the story of Nicole’s accident and recovery. It wasn’t Broadway, but she finally danced on stage in New York, as she had always dreamed.

“Standing on that stage I felt calm and relaxed, and I was filled with a sense of pride,” says Nicole. “It made me feel whole again. Once the piece was over, I gave a bow, and as the audience was applauding, I felt they could hear me thank them for allowing me to do this thing that I love.”

As part of her recovery journey, there was someone else she wanted to see: Dr. Angevine. She wanted to thank him personally for “putting her back together” and giving her the chance to rebuild her life after her traumatic accident. So during her New York visit, the two reunited at NewYork-Presbyterian Westchester.

After their visit, Dr. Angevine shared how delighted he was to see that 15 years later, she was thriving.

“There’s a difference between what’s possible and what’s likely. I never make assumptions about what someone’s ultimate outcome could be, but at the same time I try to communicate what I think is likely,” said Dr. Angevine, adding that he still thinks about her case whenever he sees anybody with a spinal injury. “Looking at how far she’s come, and to see that she’s still improving, she beat incredible odds.”

Being back in New York does bring back memories of her accident, but Nicole says it now feels like that chapter has closed.

“I never thought I’d get married, but I walked down the aisle and slow danced with my husband and my father at my wedding,” she says. “I didn’t see myself moving out of my parents’ house and having a happy fulfilling career as a performer. I didn’t think I’d ever choreograph and perform my own piece on stage in New York City. To be here after all I went through, I feel very free.”

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