Amazing Things: Nicole Marquez

A 60-foot fall left the Broadway hopeful in danger of being a quadriplegic, but she defied expectations and returned to the stage.

Portrait of Amazing Patient Nicole Marquez
Portrait of Amazing Patient Nicole Marquez

The last thing Nicole Marquez remembered was standing on the rooftop of her six-story apartment building in New York City, looking over a ledge and thinking it was a bad idea to be up there.

Aug. 30, 2008, was supposed to be a thrilling turning point for Nicole. She was 28, and she’d arrived from Jackson, Mississippi eight months earlier to pursue her dream of becoming a Broadway “triple threat” — a performer who can sing, dance and act. Trained in modern dance, ballet and jazz, she’d recently won a place as an alternate dancer in the prestigious Pilobolus Dance Theater.

After an audition she remembers as the best of her career, Nicole returned to her Harlem apartment and discovered she was locked out. She decided to go up on the roof to see if there was a way to get into her apartment through an open window. Rain had poured down all morning, and everything was wet and slick.

The next thing she knew, a ventilator was in her mouth and her mother was by her side.

“My immediate thought was, ‘Oh my god, I fell off the roof!’ I knew it was a bad idea. I thought I had walked away from the bad idea,” she says. “My next thought was, ‘Well, I don’t like these beeping machines, so might as well hurry up and get out of here.’”

Nicole was unaware that she’d suffered extensive injuries from a fall, which was estimated to be 60 feet. She’d broken her pelvis, and all the ribs on the left side of her body. Her lung was punctured and had collapsed, and she had significant blood loss. She had a broken neck and back. And most seriously, one of the bones in her neck had been crushed and the pieces were forced into her spinal cord.

Her team of doctors said it was possible that Nicole would be a quadriplegic. When Nicole heard that, she thought, “Nope, no way, that’s not me. Obviously these guys don’t know me. This is just a setback.”

During a month at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, Nicole underwent two 10-hour surgeries to stabilize her neck and back, performed by Dr. Peter Angevine, quality chair of the department of neurological surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center and assistant professor of neurological surgery at Columbia University Medical Center. Afterward, her doctors said that if she could show movement, such as wiggle a toe or move a finger, she’d be released to focus on the next phase of recovery at a rehabilitation center.

I wasn’t just a body in a bed,” she says. “I was a person with a heartbeat and a story. They saw videos of me as a dancer, and what my life was like. I know as a medical professional you have to desensitize yourself, but I never felt that at NewYork-Presbyterian.”

Still, “every day was a fight to get out of there.”

During her regular physical therapy sessions, Nicole showed an “indomitable spirit,” says Dr. Stephan Mayer, then director of the Neurological Intensive Care Unit at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, and now chair of neurology at the Henry Ford Health System. “She effectively was close to a complete quadriplegic, and recovery was going to take a long time. But I remember one day, she said, ‘I am going to move my toes today, I am going to move my fingers today,’ and then ‘Look, I’m doing it.’ She showed that early progress and she didn’t stop getting better. Month after month she was still making progress.”

“She was close to a complete quadriplegic. … But I remember, she said, ‘I am going to move my toes today’ … and then ‘Look, I’m doing it.’”

— Dr. Stephan Mayer

When Nicole was able to lift her hand about an inch off the bed, she was transferred to a rehabilitation center back in Jackson. It took years to relearn simple tasks like brushing her teeth and opening jars before progressing to walking and learning how to drive again.

Today, Nicole has regained limited use of her limbs. She can turn her neck from side to side, but can’t look behind her, and says “walking can be very challenging.” But she does it, with the aid of a leg brace and a Bioness device, which stimulates her leg nerves to help restore function. She has a slight limp, as one of her legs is now shorter than the other, but says she fights to control it.

And it’s not holding her back. Nicole practices yoga, and works out on her home ballet barre or via Skype with a dancer friend. Although she’s out of active rehab, Nicole returns to a rehabilitation center for what she jokingly refers to as her “once-a-year tuneup” to check on her progress.

“I try to live as independently as I can and sometimes I still need a little help, but I’m getting closer to being as independent as I can be,” she says. “If you’d told me three years ago that I could do yoga, I would have laughed.” One of her newest milestones is being able to walk in wedge heels.

Nicole has returned to acting, appearing as an extra in television shows and movies shot in New Orleans. Ever humble, she jokes that as an extra she’s simply “a piece of furniture in the background,” but she still gets a thrill from being selected on the basis of her headshot. “When I get a role, it’s like, well, all right. I’ve still got it!” She’s appeared in movies and shows including NCIS: New Orleans, Grudge Match (starring Robert De Niro) and HBO’s Treme.

She’s juggling a boyfriend and a career as a motivational speaker, sharing her story about hope and recovery to audiences ranging from corporate retreats at country clubs to school assemblies. Nicole has also returned to dance, as both a performer and a choreographer. She recently choreographed a church’s dance team number performed for Mississippi Veterans Affairs. Nicole says she is “finding her voice in this new career of mine” and plans to self-publish a book, Falling Isn’t Failure: The Rise of Nicole Marquez, about her life told through photographs.

“My whole life, I thought I would be a performer,” says Nicole, “but I never pictured it this way. I’m still performing onstage; I’m just performing as myself. I hope that people get something positive from my story. Life isn’t easy. Bad things can happen, but it is possible to get your happy back.”

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