October 31, 2014  

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Southern Miss Graduate Continues to Dance Following Disastrous Fall

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Nicole Marquez goes through some stretching exercises as she strives to regain her dance form following a horrific injury. (Submitted photo)

To know Nicole Marquez is to witness the resolve of the human spirit, acknowledge the power of modern medicine and realize the authenticity of miracles.

People just don’t fall six stories from an apartment rooftop and live to discuss the horrific incident. Let alone, return to the dance floor. This amazing University of Southern Mississippi graduate has accomplished both … and then some.

“I can’t believe my heart is still beating. This life is not done for me yet,” Marquez says confidently in a YouTube testimonial (

).

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again -- New York Presbyterian Hospital really did put Humpty Dumpty back together.”

And boy, did those physicians have some challenging work to do. Marquez broke her neck and back in three places; she fractured her pelvis; broke several ribs and suffered a punctured lung. She also had a deep laceration on her shoulder blade from landing on a broken bottle. The internal and external bleeding was massive.

Hooked to a ventilator with tubes protruding in all directions, Marquez coded three times from a series of mini-strokes. The prognosis was grim.

“We were told early on that if she survived, Nicole would be in a wheelchair for life,” said her mother, Susan Marquez. “I decided that wouldn’t be the case. I simply didn’t ‘own’ that idea. Thankfully, Nicole had the same thoughts.”

Marquez, 28, grew up in Hattiesburg, Miss., and took all the customary dance classes, complete with proper recitals, as a little girl. But her passion for dancing did not reach a fever pitch until she enrolled at Southern Miss.

“It really wasn’t until college that the dance bug hit me,” said Marquez. “As a freshman, I stage-managed the Southern Miss Dance Department’s fall concert. When I saw what those girls were doing, I made up my mind – ‘that’s it, I’m doing that.’ ”

A theatre major who minored in dance, Marquez honed her stage skills with a pair of apprenticeships – in the summer of 2005 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Ma., and August 2005-June 2006 at the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Ky.

From there Marquez went on to serve as production assistant on two national children’s shows: “Between the Lions,” produced by Mississippi Public Broadcasting and “Lomax: The Hound of Music,” produced by Eyevox Productions. She also worked as production coordinator for “You Gotta Move,” a DVD dance/exercise series used in public schools.

By January of 2008 Marquez had saved up enough money to pursue her dream of dancing on Broadway. She found an affordable apartment in New York City and began auditioning at every turn. Then came the harrowing night of Aug. 30, 2008 when her dreams and future changed forever.

Marquez explains how an innocent oversight became such a catastrophic event.

“I had just finished my best audition yet and when I got home I realized I had locked myself out of my apartment,” she said. “I went to the roof hoping I could find a way down to my open fifth-floor bedroom window. Realizing it wasn’t a good idea, I decided against it and walked away. What happened next is a mystery to me.”

She doesn’t recall slipping or falling, or being pushed. But seconds later the buoyant, free-spirited, dancing sprite lay crumpled on the courtyard ground, barely clinging to life. Eight hours passed before the building’s superintendent found her.

Thus began the incredible patchwork effort by doctors, nurses, physical therapists, counselors and so many others. About a year after the accident, Marquez got a surprise request from Shellie Nielsen, associate professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Southern Miss.

“Shellie e-mailed me wanting to get me in the studio to see what all my body could do and what it was capable of,” said Marquez. “I was not physically or mentally prepared at that time. But this past summer I finally felt ready and was super lucky to be able to work with her again.”

Nielsen worked with Marquez for almost a month in 10 sessions that ranged from 1 ½-2 hours each in length. They spent time striving to improve Marquez’s mobility, flexibility and range of motion. The sessions helped Marquez gain upper body strength and basically rediscover her dance abilities.

“Nicole is so proud of finding the dancer still inside her that I know she will continue in more of a dance therapy application for herself,” said Nielsen. “She will take what I have given her and practice it on her own along with her regular physical and occupational therapy. She now knows that dance can be a part of her life again.”

Nielsen and her Southern Miss colleagues may never fully appreciate how much assistance they have provided Marquez in her recovery. She says they all saw something in her that was not readily evident.

“There was a reason I went back to my USM roots. I had professors who had faith in me and believed in me,” said Marquez. “Shellie helped me find my soul again. She helped me breathe life back into my art, pushed me and reminded me that it’s still very alive. I went to the source because USM helped mold my destiny; helped my dreams become a reality.”

Today, Marquez works at the YMCA in Flowood, Miss. She also provides individualized dance/exercise/yoga instruction for businesses, organizations and meetings. She is in high demand as a motivational speaker and will deliver one of the keynote addresses at the International Women’s Leadership Conference on Sept. 20 in Honolulu, Hawaii.

When asked if she harbored any regrets about the tragic accident and its aftermath, Marquez replied, “Well, if I’m locked out of my apartment again, I’ll call a locksmith.”

Susan Marquez credits her daughter’s sharp sense of humor and eternal optimism for helping everyone involved survive the darkest days.

“I have been so amazed by her strength, courage, perseverance and hope,” said Susan Marquez, who is writing a book about Nicole’s journey. “She has displayed a wonderful sense of humor from the very beginning and, in the midst of her adversity, managed to put everyone else at ease. After hearing Nicole’s story, it’s impossible to feel sorry for yourself.”

Despite her frighteningly close brush with death, Marquez is not haunted by worries about her mortality. She is not shackled by depressing reminders that Broadway will always be an elusive dream.

“I just try to live a good life,” she said. “My overall goal is to just be happy. And do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Nicole Marquez’ outlook on life can be summed up by paying particular attention to the key words in her Website: http://youcantstopthisdancer.com/

Stop this dancer? A six-story fall sure couldn’t.