Nicole Marquez looks small in the bed with its hospital-white sheets, her short dark hair showing signs of her lying prone for a little too long. It's sticking up in places where it should probably be lying down. A blue, purple and white quilt covers her legs. Her lively eyes zero in on mine, and she puts on her dark-framed glasses to get a better look. It's only then that I notice her hands curved inward, her fingers less than responsive.
The wall on the right in her room at Methodist Rehabilitation Hospital, the wall Nicole sees from her bed, is covered with photos, cards, flowers, balloonsevery imaginable artistic well-wishing creation from friends and family. Nicole's mother, Susan, looks up with a smile to offer a greeting, and Josh Hailey, Nicole's photographer boyfriend, steps over from the window side of the room for a hug.
The last time I saw Nicole, she and Joshwho is a frequent contributor to Jackson Free Pressjoined JFP staffers in our walking krewe in Mal's St. Paddy's Parade last March. Both were covered ankle to wrist to collar bone in dark green liquid latexother clothing somewhat optional. Nicole and I didn't really connect that day; not surprising, really. At 25, she's half my age. She was far more interested in taking glorious, beautiful leaps through the air, dancing and tumbling the entire mile and a half route. The green paint was peeling in strips and tatters by the time we went our separate ways.
I remember thinking, "Wow, that girl's amazing," as I watched her dance, a bit envious of her athletic grace and fearlessness as she did handstands and cartwheels in the road.
"I'm going to dance in that parade again next spring," Nicole tells me with absolute conviction when I remind her we'd met before and where. By the time I leave the hospital, I believe she's right.
Nicole was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from University of Southern Mississippi in 2006, with a major in drama and a minor in dance.
"Go Eagles!" she interjects, and lifts her hands in the air in a mock cheer.
Like many little girls, Nicole took ballet classes for about 10 years, starting when she was 4 or 5. But as a teenager in high school, she lost interest in dance, instead moving toward drama.
"I was studying to be an actress," she says, training in the Suzuki method at Southern, which focuses on training the body and effectively using breath to project from the stage. But the dance department was in the same building as the drama department, and as a freshman, Nicole got the opportunity to be a stage manager for the dancers.
"When I saw what they were doing, I was just amazed," she says, her eyes growing wide. "I knew that was what I wanted to do.
My professors told me that I shouldn't try it. They said: 'You want to be a dance major? That's ridiculous.' And I said, 'Oh yeah? Watch me!'"
Nicole had some catching up to do after her hiatus from dancing, but she was determined. Once she made up her mind, there simply wasn't any stopping her. The experience was far from smooth sailing, and she alternated between total frustration to days when she would "just get it." She had to start nearly from scratch, relearning the basics of ballet, jazz and modern dance, all the while keeping up with her work in the drama department.
"I was with a bunch of girls who had been doing this, day in, day out, so I had a lot to work with," she says. "I had to get up to their level, because they were beautiful."
Dance, like many physical pursuits requiring intense concentration, require the mind and body to work as one, in almost direct opposition to traditional Western thinking. Blame it on René Descartes. Back in the 17th century, Descartes announced that the body and the mind were separate and unequal entities, and ever since, Western medicine, especially, has treated them that way. You see a shrink for your "mental" illness and a "regular" doc for your sniffles, broken bones and all the other "body" issues.
"Every thought changes the chemistry of the body," says psychologist Dr. Patricia Brawley of Macomb. "We can remember scary things, or we can worry ourselves sick. And, we can notice beautiful things and enjoy sights and smells and memories and good thoughts. That produces a neurotransmitter that acts on a particular part of the brain that makes us feel good."
Positive thoughts naturally release chemicals and hormones such as endorphins and dopamine that not only make us feel good, but are also good for us physically. In Nicole's case, remembering the parade and other enjoyable incidences of her life, and maintaining a positive attitude will actually help heal her body. Negative thoughts, on the other hand, release chemicals in the brain, too, such as cortisol and norepinephrine, which have the potential to harm our bodies.
"The brain doesn't know the difference," between stress caused by our mental machinations and stress caused by physical injury, Brawley said. "It's stressful; it's pain; it's a thought."
Eastern medicine and philosophy never made the mind-body separation. Buddhists, for example, see the mind as just another body partlike your heart, eyes, hands and legswith a unique function. Without the "benefit" of Cartesian philosophy, Eastern doctors have always included the role of the mind in every prescription. Even Eastern forms of exercisesuch as yoga and martial artsfocus on the whole being: body, mind and spirit.
Nicole's mind and spirit had a lot to do with her eventual success as a dancer. She pushed hard for three years. Then, in 2005, her junior year, Nicole auditioned for Southern's Repertory Dance Companyand got in. It was a phenomenal achievement for someone not majoring in dance.
"It was kind of like my own little secret I had to myself. I was like, 'I'm gonna show them.' And then to see all my professors in the front row, saying, 'Wow. Maybe she can do this,'" she says of that first performanceit was a sweet success.
After graduation, Nicole got a coveted apprenticeship at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., in summer 2006, and at the end of August, moved on to Kentucky's Actors Theatre of Louisville, home of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. For six weeks every spring, people from all over the world converge on Louisville to see the best new plays selected from thousands of submitted scripts. Nicole was one of only 22 young actors to appear at the Humana Festival in 2006, selected from hundreds of theater interns and apprentices who auditioned nationwide. She acted in one of the 10-minute plays, and was a choreographer for another.
At the end of her year in Kentucky, Nicole's mentors encouraged her to move to New York, but she couldn't swing it financially.
"They don't pay the apprentices," she says. "My pockets were empty."
Without a New York job or an agent, Nicole came home to Jackson in May 2007 to work and save enough money to make the move. Initially a bit discouraged, she was surprised at how the city had grown.
"It was great coming back home," she says, when she realized how much creativity had infiltrated the city since she left for college. "I love this state."
She and Josh met through her motherJosh was the photographer for a story Susan was writing for Portico magazineand they hooked up during the Mississippi State Fair in October 2007, where Josh asked Nicole to dance.
"I forgot she was a dancer," Josh says, but it didn't take long for him to remember once they were on the floor. "All of a sudden she starts rolling all over the pavement, doing hard-core splits on the pavement.
I just started playing air guitar," and watched her performance, along with the rest of the crowd.
Nicole worked in Mississippi through December 2007, saving money to make the move to New York. She worked in Ridgeland at Eyevox, a company specializing in film and video production and animation, as the receptionist and "jack of all trades." She also worked with Jacksonians Jef and Brenda Judin at 4-Tell Films on "You Gotta Move," a PBS children's production, as an associate producer.
Whenever she couldfour or five times before she finally moved to the cityshe flew north for visits and auditions, getting familiar with the city, checking out places to live and searching for a job. Many of her friends from college had moved to New York right after graduation, and they were urging Nicole to come and join them as soon as possible.
"We've got everything else covered. We need the Latin vixen," they wrote her. Many of her friends fit fair-haired or fair-eyed stereotypically ethnic "types," and they joked that Nicole, with her Latin blood from her Venezuelan father, would play those "other" roles. "Come on," they e-mailed her. "New York needs you."
After months of reconnaissance, Nicole finally moved to New York City in January 2008. She went to the city with confidence and a ready-made, hometown community. She joined three of her friends in an apartment in Harlem.
Once in the city, Nicole continued to audition, taking small roles choreographing and dancing in music videos, and doing odd jobs at the Cornell Fitness Center, a nearby gym, while working toward her Pilates instructor certification, which she received in early August. She was looking forward to taking on private Pilates clients, she says, and she decided to focus more strongly on dance again, taking classes "from this awesome German guy who would play the wackiest music with the wackiest movement."
The Kentucky's Actors Theatre hired her to choreograph for the 2008 Humana Festival, and once again she worked in Louisville in February and March of this year.
Despite travelling for work, Nicole was adjusting well to her new life in Harlem with her friends. One of the best features in their apartment was the building's roof was where the roommates went for privacy. The super posted a sign that residents were not to go up on the roof, but apparently, never locked the access door. But by then, Nicole and her roommates felt the roof was theirs.
It was kind of our little sanctuary," Nicole says. "It was really nice in the evening times. At nighttime you could have privacy, because our walls were kind of paper-thin.
We would go to the roof to make late-night phone calls, sunbathe, drinkorange juice, of course," she says, smiling.
Nicole doesn't remember what happened on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2008. Police have pieced together some information: She text-messaged a roommate, saying she'd locked herself out of the apartment. Perhaps she was trying to climb down from the sixth-floor roof to get to an apartment window when she fell, but police believe foul play might be involved.
The building superintendent found her in an airshaft when he took the trash out on Saturday afternoon. Police estimate she had fallenor was pushedoff the roof some eight hours before the super saw her feet and called an ambulance. The super didn't usually come to the building on weekends, and luckily, Harlem Hospital was just across the street.
"We got a call on Saturday afternoon from the New York City Police Department," Susan says. It was Sunday before she and Nicole's father, Larry, could get flights. By then, Nicole had been transferred from Harlem Hospital to New York Presbyterian Hospital. There, she had a 10-hour surgery to repair her broken neck on Monday, Sept. 1, and another nine-hour surgery on her lower back and pelvis, which she also broke, on Sept. 11.
All the while, Nicole couldn't talk because she had a breathing tube down her throat. Some of her broken ribs (she broke all of them on one side of her body) had punctured and collapsed a lung, and she needed help breathing. She also lost a good deal of blood through a laceration on her back.
Nicole drifted in an out of consciousness for days. "I didn't want to believe I was in the hospital," she says, thinking she was in her apartment having a bad dream.
"I remember faces; I remember my friends," Nicole says of those first days. "I remember morphine. We became very good friends." She remembers her parents, and was happy every time she saw a loved one's face. She also remembers waking up to nurses giving her a bath and thinking, "This cannot be happening. This is a bad dream. It's just a dream."
But it wasn't.
"She learned how to honk when she wasn't pleased with something," Susan says. "If you bite down on the (breathing) tube, it makes a honking noise." It was Nicole's only way of communicating, other than an alphabet board with which she could laboriously spell out words letter by letter with someone's help.
"We were there around the clock," Josh says, but even then, it took a while to figure out that "honking" was Nicole's way of communicating. At first, he says, they tried to keep her from biting the tube, until they realized she was trying to get someone's attention. But she needed that breathing tube for two and half weeks. The first time they took it out, she wasn't able to breathe on her own. She also had three "mini" strokes, probably caused by high fevers in reaction to numerous infections.
Some of her first words after doctors finally removed the tube? PBS caught the moment in a documentary about nursing.
"I love you, Mom. Wow. I never knew how wonderful that would sound," Nicole says on the film, enunciating carefully.
"I'm working out the kinks," Nicole says eight weeks after the accident.
After Nicole's condition stabilized enough for her to leave the Neurology Intensive Care Unit in New York, Nicole flew home to Mississippi and Specialty Hospital in Jackson Sept. 26. There, doctors and nurses began the physical therapy to get her back on her feet and continued to provide the support she needed to heal. Several weeks later, Nicole moved to Methodist Rehabilitation hospital on Oct. 20.
Doctors in Mississippi don't generally address illness from a mind-body continuum, Brawley told me. She says she's gotten a handful of referrals, but like many traditionally trained Western physicians, doctors' first thoughts go to medication and surgery. Brawley knows through her own extensive experience and research that changing your thoughts can change your health: Exercise affects the mind, and positive thinking and mindful pursuits, such as meditation, affect a patient's physical health.
Nicole is a perfect example of how the mind-body connection works. After her second surgery, doctors gave Nicole less than a 50/50 chance of ever walking again, but her spirit is determined to beat those odds, and she uses every ounce of determination to prove the doctors wrong, just as she did her drama professors.
At Methodist, Josh picks up a corner of her blanket to reveal Nicole's feet, and she moves them with obvious glee to show me that she can. Every voluntary movement and sign of nerve regeneration is cause for celebration.
"The cool thing is that last night my legs started burning; not hurting, burning," she says, an indication that her damaged nerves are recovering. "Plus, I'm having spasms in my legs. Excellent!"
"No parent should have to watch their kid have to go through that," Nicole adds. "At this point, the future looks great for me; I'm not worried at all."
Her family and friends allow Nicole to concentrate all of her energy on healing, taking pains not to bring her down.
"It's kind of a miracle she's alive," after everything she's been through, Josh says. He recalls getting to her bedside on Tuesday, Sept. 2Hurricane Gustav delayed his arrival until several days after the accidentonly to learn of her first stroke. Doctors and family asked him whether she'd ever mentioned pulling the plug, basically asking him if she would want to live in a disabled condition.
"That's the first thing I got to experience," he says. "Not a good starter."
Nicole had feeding tubes and intravenous tubes everywhere, Josh says, and nearly every time they removed a tube, she would get another infection. At one point, visitors had to wear masks and special garments because she was so susceptible to infection. She had constant fevers and was surrounded by bags of ice. She developed pneumonia and had bad reactions to some of her medications.
"It's hard to watch," Josh says, especially in someone so full of life.
Yet it's Nicole who continues to be the most positive person in the room, a role she's played all of her life. Doctors predict a long recovery, according to Nicole's father.
On Oct. 22, Nicole's friends threw her an early Halloween party, and Nicole not only dressed upwith a little help from her friendsbut sat up in a wheelchair for a couple of hours.
"Right there, that's a major workout," Larry says.
He worries about her health insurance running out. The company will only pay for a pre-determined number of days in rehab, he says, after which private payments have to take over, or she'll have to rely on Medicaid, which won't provide the same level of care.
"If we get a quarter out of (the insurance), it'll be great," Larry says, meaning three months of rehab care. Nicole had been hospitalized for nearly two months when I spoke with her, at least half of which can be considered rehab. "She's a fighter," Larry adds. "With her personality, she can do it." Still, he and Susan are grateful for every bit of progress she makes.
Because of her positive attitude, Nicole has become something of a media celebrity, with regular updates on her progress aired locally on WLBT-TV3, and, the PBS documentary, "Nurses Needed," aired for the first time Oct. 23. Doctors also credit her youth and excellent physical shape for her recovery, along with the support she's getting from family and friends.
"If you want to get better, you're going to get better," Josh says, echoing Brawley's sentiments about positive thinking, and how the mind, body and spirit are all connected. Josh assures me that Nicole will find a way to use whatever she gains back to be an inspiration to others. He believes, like everyone who comes into contact with her, that she will dance again. That's who she's always been, and there's no reason to think it will be different because of her accident.
Nicole is pragmatic about her future. She's already looking forward to the day when she can teach others how to triumph over their own "accidents" and disabilities, Josh tells me.
She's just beginning another big challenge, one far greater than getting a spot in Southern's Repertory Company. She knows it's going to be a long, tough haul. But when I ask her what keeps her going, she replies simply:
"Because I'm alive. You can't stop this dancertrust me. I've got a whole lot of living to do."
For updates on Nicole, additional photos and an opportunity to contribute to her health-care costs, go to YouCantStopThisDancer.com. Watch the PBS NOW "Nurses Needed" documentary at pbs.org/now/shows/442/
Can't Stop This Dancer Benefits
Saturday, Nov. 15, 7-11 p.m.
Dancing & Draw Down with Lisa Palmer, Rhonda Richmond, Jewel Bass and These Days
Country Club of Jackson
$50 per person, $100 per ticket for the Draw Down
Friday, Nov. 21, 8-10 p.m.
121 Studio Drum Circle and Dance
121 Millsaps Ave.
$10 per person
Saturday, Nov. 22, 2-5 p.m.
You Gotta Move! Show and Youth Sock Hop
Hal & Mal's
$5 per person
Saturday, Nov. 22, 8 p.m.-midnight
Hal & Mal's Blues & Rock
With Bobby Rush, Eddie Cotton, The Pates, Patrick Harkins, Grady Champion and others
$15 per person
See other Body/Soul stories this issue:
How To Talk to Your Doctor
Choosing The Right Workout
The Power of Living in The Now
Living With Addiction
I love her name. LOL!
Powerful and touching story by a talented writer.