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. 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.”