Sunday, August 30, 2009

Happy Anniversary Baby?

One year ago, at this very time, our daughter, Nicole, was laying unconscious on the ground in the air shaft of her building. She had been there most of the night, and wouldn't be found for another few hours. She had gotten locked out of her apartment and went to the roof, thinking she may be able to find a way to get into her open window. Once there, and after assessing the situation, she realized that it was impossible. But some how, some way, she ended up falling. Six stories. And when she did, the story of the year to come began to unfold.

I've told the story time and time again, but today, we want to remember it with vivid detail. Because it's in remembering that we understand the miracle of how far Nicole has come in her recovery.

I got the call from the NYPD around 1:30pm. They told me she had been found and taken to Harlem Hospital. And yes, she was still alive. Harlem is a level one trauma center, and while there, a chest tube was inserted because she had a punctured lung that was full of blood--her most life threatening injury.

Larry came home from work, and we tried getting a flight to NY, but it was Saturday afternoon. No more flights for the day. I got the last seat on a Southwest flight that left at 6am Sunday morning. Larry was to follow on Delta at 11am. At least one of us would be there with her as soon as possible. Larry got there first. He beat me by two hours. I was laid over in Baltimore, where doctors from Harlem told me by phone that Nicole would be a quadriplegic for life.

While in Baltimore, I spoke with Susan Luke, who said we needed to start a Caring Bridge site right away. She was in Dallas, buying a wedding dress for her daughter at the time. I called Carol Terry, my lifelong friend and Nicole's godmother, and she set it all up for us. I didn't know at the time what an important part of this journey that site would be. At the time, it was simply a way to communicate what was happening with Nicole so we wouldn't have to repeat it over and over again on the phone. But it became much more. It was a way for people to communicate to us--giving us words of comfort, faith, strength, and even laughter. It was critical to our well-being, particularly during those first few weeks.

When I arrived in NY, Nicole was being transferred to NY Presbyterian, where she would spend the next month. Larry got there in time to ride with her in the ambulance from Harlem to NYP. The first few hours there were a whirlwind of getting our bearings, absorbing what was happening, assessing Nicole's situation, and just trying to keep our knees from buckling. Several of her NY friends where at the hospital when we arrived. Timo, Jane, Lizzie, Zdenko...familiar, friendly faces that helped make that tranisition a little easier for us.

A rundown of her injuries included a broken neck (C5 & C6 vertebrae), a broken back (L-4 vertebrae in the lumbar spine), broken pelvis, broken ribs, punctured lung. Her heart was bruised in the fall, and her vertebral artery, which runs up the back side of the neck, was torn, resulting in a series of strokes.

At 4am we were introduced to the surgeon who would perform surgery on Nicole's neck at 6am. Dr. Peter Angevine looked for all the world to be about 20 years old. But he was confident, professional and very serious, explaining how he would be stabilizing her neck, and the risks of surgery. There was no time to check out his background. I looked at him with what I'm sure was a most bewildered look on my face and asked "Do you know what you're doing?" He gave me a little smile and said "Yes." I told him she was a dancer. It was her passion. She had to dance again. He listened. Really listened and said he'd do the very best of his ability. I gave this stranger a hug, asked God to bless him and guide him and then Larry and I gave our daughter up to both the doctor and God. Faith had to kick in big time. It was so out of our hands.

She sailed through the first surgery. Ten hours later were back in her room in the Neuro ICU as she was waking up. One down, one to go. The next surgery was scheduled for September 3, but was postponed until September 11 due to the strokes she suffered as a result of the torn vertebral artery. Each day was a series of CAT scans and MRI's, x-rays, EEG's and EKG's. There were so many monitors and pumps and things that beeped and honked. The weird thing is how fast we adjusted to it all--it all seemed so normal after a few days.

During Nicole's accident, a love story unfolded and Josh Hailey became a critical player in the journey. He got to NY as soon as he could--the day after her surgery, just in time for Nic to give us one of the biggest scares we had while she was in the hospital. It was life-threatening and terrifying, and it was how Nicole welcomed Josh after he had been trying to get to NY for two days. A stroke. But, as she did every time, she bounced back, and we all sighed with relief, and our month in NY began. Having Josh by her bedside seemed to lift Nicole's spirits, and he kept us all entertained throughout the journey.

It took a couple of days, but soon we established a routine. I would wake up around
5am, get ready for the day, and head to Nicole's room, where Josh had been all night. Dr. Angevine made rounds at 6am, so Josh and I would often hear what he had to say, then Josh would go to bed. Larry would come down between 8 and 9am, and we'd stay with Nicole all day. Josh would wake up around 3pm and we'd all have "high tea" on the "Lido Deck" and the three of us would spend the evening together with Nicole. Around 10pm, I'd go up to bed, and Larry would follow between midnight and around 1 or 2am. And so it went for days and days and days.

During that time, Brenda Judin came to stay with us for a week. It was great having a familiar face from home. Brenda has known Nicole since she was ten, and she was a great addition to our support team. Right off the bat, Brenda was a Kinko's, enlarging a letter chart for Nicole to try to communicate with us. It was frustrating for Nicole, as she had a ventilator tube down her throat and couldn't talk. Brenda became very good at reading Nic's lips and figuring out what she needed.

We were sad when Brenda had to go back home. And after three full weeks, Josh had to leave as well. That left Larry and I, then he, too, had to get back to work. But the good news for me is that the day Larry left, Jef Judin flew in to NY. Jef and I were there for Nicole the last few days she was in NY, and he flew home with us in the air ambulance to Jackson.

The next three and a half weeks were spent at Select Specialty Hospital where Nicole regained her strength and began physical and occupational therapy with the dynamic duo of Charlotte and Tara. We celebrated each tiny accomplishment as we watched Nicole struggle to move, determined and strong and with the most incredible attitude.

Our next stop was the Methodist Rehabilitation Center, where Nicole spent the next three months. She rolled in the place in a wheelchair, but the day she left, she walked out on Josh's arm. With alot of work, patience, perseverance and true grit, Nicole learned to walk again at MRC. And in doing so, she made friends for life with her therapists and nurses.

In January, Nicole moved back home. At 25 years old, she was faced with the fact that she was no longer the independent young woman who had studied in France, traveled around Europe, lived in Stockbridge, MA, Louisville, KY, and NYC...she was like a child again, dependent upon others for help going to the bathroom, eating, getting dressed--the most basic of things. But she kept her chin up, knowing that this was a temporary situation, and she showed gratitude for everything everyone did for her.

Therapy became her job. Her life work. Her passion. Nicole takes her therapy as seriously as she did her studies in theatre and dance. She pushes herself, defying all odds and persevering.

Early on, her physiatrist, Dr. Winkelmann, warned Nicole not to put her life on hold. He told her to live each day to the fullest with the abilities she had. He told her she could travel and do whatever she wanted to do. Nicole really took that to heart, and she has done so much in the past year. In late January, we went to NY at the invitation of NYP to speak at their annual kickoff. They sent a film crew from NY to do a piece on Nicole which they showed at the meeting, and afterwards, Nicole walked up to the stage on her walker to a standing ovation of 1200 physicians and hospital managers.

Other travels include a week long trip to Austin with Josh, a trip to Birmingham for a wedding, another trip to Birmingham to do some videotaping at the Southern Living headquarters, a trip to Gulf Shores with Josh, a trip to Dallas where she spoke at the Southern Living at HOME convention, and a trip to Nashville. Our family will be heading to NY in September where we'll celebrate with the hospital staff once again. We made a promise on the day we left the hospital--September 27--that we'd be back in one year, and Nicole would dance down the halls of the hospital. We're making good on that promise! And in October, we'll Nicole and I be flying to Washington, DC, to see our new friend Alecia Aliho and we'll all go to a performance of Pilobolus at the Kennedy Center. I'd say Nicole is taking Dr. Winkelmann's advice to heart!

And her acting and dancing career has not come to a screeching halt either. On the six month anniversary of her accident, Nicole danced in a special piece choreographed for her by Cynthia Newland, dean of the Belhaven College dance department. It was performed to a full house in the Belhaven Center for the Arts during an event called "Tunes, Tutus and Turning Wheels," done in conjuction with the International Ballet Competition, Methodist Rehab, Very Special Arts and Belhaven College. She also peformed in the Fondren Theatre Workshop's production of "The Vagina Monologues," as well as the Ten Minute Play Project. And just recently, Nicole choreographed a dance for a senior dance project for a student at Belhaven.

So Nicole isn't living her dream in NY--Yet. But if she can come as far as she has in one year--from being at death's door to doing all she's doing right now, I know that the next year's journey will be even more exciting. She's starting this year off on two feet as opposed to laying in a hospital bed. And her determination and motivation is stronger than ever.

How do we begin to thank everyone who made this journey an easier one for us? For those where were phyiscally there for us--thank you. For those who wrote on Caring Bridge, called us, sent cards, books of encouragement, crosses, food, etc.--thank you. For those who generously gave financial donations--thank you. Because of you, we were able to stay in NY for a month, fly Nicole home on a private air amublance, and pay many of her medical bills. Again--a big, big thank you. For those who planned and coordinated and executed fundraisers--thank you! For those who made and donated art and other items--thank you. For those who have made sure our needs were met in any way--thank you. Because of you, we were able to focus on Nicole--on her healing, on her well-being, on her rehabilitation, and not worry about anything else. That's such a wonderful gift, and we have made a vow to pay it forward for the rest of our lives in any way that we can. We truly understand how important and needed and appreciated those gestures can be.

And finally, thank you for your prayers. We are amazed at the outpouring of prayer from churches, Sunday school classes, prayer groups, and individuals. Each Sunday that we were in the hospital, we were comforted knowing that people were gathered and saying prayers for Nicole. There is no doubt that God heard them--and answered them. She continues to heal, get stronger, and more independent, and we have to attribute that to the power of prayer and God's healing hand on her.

What does the future hold for Nicole? She's joining the National Speakers Association and will be working towards her certification as a motivational speaker. Her theatre skills will come in handy, I'm sure, as she addresses audiences around the country. Already, she has volunteered to speak to school groups and churches in the area. And I'm sure she'll continue her work at MRC, talking to patients there and giving them hope.

If we've heard it once, we've heard it a thousand or more times: "Got must have great plans for you." I believe that's true for each and every one of us. But Nicole's life has been put under a magnifying glass, and her plan will be a big one, I'm sure. Her life work may touch more people than others, because she's a great messenger. She has a charisma that draws people to her. It's a huge task, but one that God knows she can handle, which is why he chose her.

So, today, we reflect on the past year...but look ahead to the future. The next chapter in this exciting journey is about to begin!

Blesssings to all who read this!


  1. Came across this blog by mistake, and am very glad I did!
    This is inspirational and moving to read. Nicole is obviously a very special person, full of life and determination. You are so full of pride and love for her.
    My prayer for you all.

  2. Glad you found us! I'm also glad my pride and love for her shows...she is, indeed, a very special person, even though she is my daughter...I feel I have the right to tell the world that she's the strongest, most resilient, most positive person I know. Thanks for the nice comment.

  3. Mrs. Susan,
    I wanted you to know what a joy it is to have Nicole in my life. We met at MRC in January. I've been following her process since then. I think about and pray for ya'll often. May God continue to shine down on you and your family!
    Much Love,

  4. hey there! saw ur post on jimmy glenn's facebook and had to look! i just had a 4 yr anniversary of a car wreck that left me a quadriplegic. i am a walking miracle now. i still have lots of issues but so much better than anticipated. it's been a crazy journey. prayers for you all and for her full recovery! God is faithful no matter the outcome!
    marci woodruff