Photo by Josh Hailey
When asked to describe herself, Nicole Marquez uses a stream of positive expressions.
“To sum myself up in a nutshell, I’m very ridiculous, happy,” she says, grinning with her wide, easy smile. “I like waking up in the morning. I like to have lots of fun, and I’m really happy when life’s happy. It’s a lot better to smile than frown; everyone looks good when they smile.
“If the world is one giant amusement park, I want it to be full of Slip ‘N Slides,” the 27-year-old continues, playfully adding, “I’m really hoping also that a sugar daddy will come into my future.”
Her happy-go-lucky attitude seems all the more miraculous when you consider what this actor/dancer has been through: just two years ago, Nicole fell from the roof of her New York apartment building. She wasn’t supposed to survive, but she did. She wasn’t supposed to walk again. But now she not only walks; she dances.
Nicole’s mother, Susan Marquez, knew her daughter would be a dancer when she was about three years old.
“We put her in a dance class, and she just loved it,” says Susan. “Since then, she has either danced or acted or both.”
In fact, Nicole began to focus more on drama in high school, and at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she studied to be an actress. The dance and theater departments were housed in the same building, and as a freshman, Nicole got the opportunity to stage-manage a dance performance.
“I knew I was missing something out of my life, and that was it,” Nicole says. “I didn’t want to give up on acting; I just wanted to add more to it.”
Asked to name her favorite forms of dance, Nicole rattles off a long list: modern, hip hop, jazz, ballet—“because that’s behind everything”—ballroom and just dancing for fun. “
After graduating from USM in 2006 with a degree in theater and a minor in dance, Nicole accepted a summer apprenticeship at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. She got another acting apprenticeship that August at the Actors Theater of Louisville in Kentucky, home of the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
“She worked with a lot of Broadway actors who came in, and she decided New York was where she wanted to go,” Susan says.
Nicole moved home to Jackson to work and save money for her big move. She found a job as a receptionist at Eyevox, a company in Ridgeland that specializes in film and video production and animation. She also worked as an associate producer on “You’ve Gotta Move,” a PBS children’s production filmed by family friends Jef and Brenda Judin at 4-Tell Films.
“There’s not much for dancers here in the South,” Nicole says. “I wanted to dance on Broadway, therefore, I packed my bags and did the thing most starlets do and moved to New York.”
In January 2008, after a few trips to the city for visits and auditions, Nicole joined three of her college friends in a Harlem apartment. She worked at Cornell Fitness Center, eventually earning her Pilates instructor certification while taking dance classes and auditioning.
“She did some choreography for music videos, but her goal really was to be on Broadway,” Susan says.
Then came Aug. 29, 2008.
“She had a great audition that day, and it was a wonderful day,” Susan says. “She came home that night, and she was locked out her apartment.”
Nicole’s apartment was on the fifth floor of a five-story building. When she couldn’t reach her roommates, she went one flight up to the roof where she and her friends liked to grill and lay out in the sun.
“I thought I could get into an open window, decided it was a terrible idea, and the next thing I knew I was in the hospital,” says Nicole, who remembers nothing of the accident.
Her building’s supervisor normally didn’t come to the building on Saturdays, but thankfully he broke from routine on that day, finding Nicole eight hours after she fell six stories.
“He was putting trash liners in garbage cans, and he looked out a window and saw her feet,” Susan says.Luckily, Nicole lived about a block away from Harlem Hospital, a level 1 trauma center. Her parents received a phone call around 2 p.m. that day, but all the detective could tell them was that she had been found and was in the hospital. Over the next few hours, the family learned that Nicole had broken the C5 and C6 vertebrae in her neck, the L4 lumbar vertebra in her back, as well as her pelvis and several ribs on her left side. She also had a punctured lung, and it would be a few hours before medical staff could determine if she would have any brain function. However, she was stabilized.
Nicole’s parents couldn’t get a flight to New York until Sunday morning, and even then they had to fly on separate flights. Susan got the last seat on a Southwest flight around 6 or 7 that morning, and Larry followed three hours later on a Delta flight.
“I couldn’t stand her being there alone,” Susan says, “but she was so sedated she didn’t know.”
Susan happened to choose a seat next to a critical care physician from Johns Hopkins Hospital, who was flying home to Baltimore with his young son.
When he learned of Nicole’s accident, the doctor began asking a lot of pointed questions.
“He knew exactly what her situation was at that moment,” Susan says. “He told me things I could expect when I saw her.”
He also explained that Susan’s most important role was as Nicole’s advocate, as she would be unable to speak or make decisions. He told her to question instructions or procedures if she didn’t feel good about them. He also advised Susan to get her daughter out of Harlem Hospital and make sure they didn’t do her impending neck surgery there. Susan said she had no idea how to make that happen.
The Southwest flight connected in Baltimore, where the doctor began using his cell phone.
“He looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘Everything’s going to be OK,’” Susan says. At that moment, her own phone rang, and when she looked back up, the doctor was gone.
When Susan arrived in New York, Nicole was being transferred to New York-Presbyterian Hospital, a facility renowned for its neurological intensive care units. The doctor she met on the plane had made some phone calls, and she was being transferred Susan says.
Within eight hours of her arrival, doctors performed surgery on her broken neck, a 12-hour operation. They didn’t know if she would have any movement and said she would probably be a quadriplegic.
The next day, Nicole suffered a stroke because of a tear in her neck artery, causing bleeding in her brain. She also had heart problems because the muscle was badly bruised from her fall. She had surgery again on Sept. 1, and underwent a 10-hour back operation on Sept. 11. During her stay, she coded four times, meaning she suffered four mini-strokes.
Since New York-Presbyterian’s ICU doesn’t have visiting hours, her family could be with her 24 hours a day. While her mother was updating Nicole’s Web page on Caring Bridge from the back corner of the room and Nicole’s father, Larry, was sitting next to her, Nicole went into distress.
“She started making weird gurgling noises and her eyes rolled back and all the monitors started going crazy,” Susan says.
Larry ran into the hall and yelled, ‘We need help!’ but the nurses were already on their way. Susan was trapped in the back corner of the room.
“I couldn’t get out,” she says. “They pulled the crash cart in and I was in the corner and they were screaming and yelling and she was having a seizure. I prayed harder than I’ve ever prayed. It was over really fast, but it took me a long time to come down from that. I’m glad my husband was with me.”
After a month in New York-Presbyterian’s ICU, Nicole finally improved to the point that she could fly home via air ambulance. She traveled back to Jackson on a Lear jet, accompanied by a critical care nurse and a pulmonologist since she was still on a respirator. Nicole was admitted to Select Specialty Hospital-Jackson, where her projected one-to-two week stay stretched into a month due to a bad case of pneumonia. From there, she went to Methodist Rehabilitation Center for a three-month stay.
“We rolled her in [the room] in a wheelchair and she could barely hold up her head on her own,” Susan says. “When she left, she walked out of there with her boyfriend. They kind of did a little tango dance out of Methodist Rehab. It was really cute.”
In rehab, Nicole had to relearn everything.
“When a baby is born, it doesn’t have any muscle, which is why they fall,” Nicole explains. “They’re building muscle. I was the equivalent to an infant. I had to learn everything from scratch. It’s a very interesting feeling. It was really weird. It’s a lot easier to laugh about it. I reached old age at a reasonable age—that way I know what to do when I get to that point.”
Nicole spent a year in outpatient therapy to build her walking skills, focusing on core body strength for balance. She left the rehabilitation center using a walker and eventually graduated to a cane.
“Good thing was, she understood the body so well being a Pilates instructor and dancer and was used to the gym setting and working hard in a gym,” Susan says.
Those factors helped make Nicole a successful rehabilitation patient, going beyond therapists’ expectations.
“I was very aware of my body and what my muscles could do and what I could do internally to get external results,” Nicole says. “That’s not the guiding factor, but it definitely helped. If I could wrap it all into a nutshell, thinking positive and keeping my head up—which is really hard to do, even for myself—it’s a lot easier than pouting since nobody likes a negative Nancy.”
She continues to inspire her fellow rehab patients, most of whom are not used to being in a gym setting every day. Some are stroke victims, and some are older patients recovering from hip replacement surgeries. She challenges, pushes and encourages each of them, giving everyone a nickname.
“She’s walking now without a cane, and she’s dancing again,” Susan says. “Not the same kind of dancing that she used to do or would like to do. In her mind, I just know she wants to bust loose and be all over the stage. She’s working on it, but she can’t right now.”
At this point, Nicole is doing choreography with dance students at Belhaven University in Jackson. She’s also pursuing a career in motivational speaking. At press time, she had spoken at 20 engagements for schools, churches and doctors’ groups. In May, she spoke at the occupational therapy pinning ceremony at Itawamba Community College.
“I feel that my message is a message that a lot of people need to hear because I think differently than a lot of people and they think differently than me,” Nicole says. “It’s really easy to look at yourself as a victim and say, ‘Boo hoo,’ but keep your head up. Dust yourself off and keep going. I don’t think people realize they have the power to do that. You have the potential to do that—everybody does. If you need to change the situation, just do it.”
Nicole currently has a personal care assistant to help her with things she can’t yet do on her own. Right now, her goal is to become financially and physically independent.
“Her biggest deficit is the use of her hands,” Susan says. “She doesn’t have very good use of her hands from her spinal injury and stroke. It’s really frustrating.”
For example, Nicole has a stand to hold her blow-dryer while she dries her hair, and she can hold a brush with her right hand. However, she can’t straighten her hair, which she likes to do, and she can’t put it up by herself. She had to work hard to be able to put on socks and shoes, but she can do that now. When she came home, she couldn’t shower and get dressed without assistance, but now she can. While she can’t drive on her own yet, she’s getting there.
“It’s like having a baby all over again, except on an accelerated track,” Susan says. “The cool thing is, throughout it all, she’s had this super, super positive attitude.”
Nicole looks at her situation as someone with a broken leg might: it’s inconvenient, but it’s only temporary and everything will be all right.
For a Methodist Rehab fundraiser in May, Nicole walked two laps—one mile—around Lear Lake with no assistance and no cane. Many of her therapists walked with her.
“[That’s just one of] lots of little celebrations that we have, and we do celebrate everything,” Susan says. “If she can walk a mile on her own, what is she going to do next week?”
As far as her ultimate goal, Nicole can’t pinpoint one specific thing because her life has been so completely altered.
“Top of my list is, I just want to get better,” Nicole says. “I’ll start realizing what I can do with this body and what I can do right now and it’s really great. A whole new world has opened up for me, and I’m ready to just open up my cap and start exploring.”
To book Nicole for a motivational speaking engagement, visit her Website or email her: