Sunday, April 22, 2018

An Indomitable Spirit

I met an indomitable spirit recently at the Mississippi Workers' Compensation Education Association (MWCEA) conference in Biloxi, Mississippi. Her story is not of a work accident, but her words moved me. She is a storyteller, an inspiration, and an indomitable spirit. There are people around us that bring us down with their words and attitude, we deal with them everyday. But, occasionally we are also uplifted by someone. There are amazing people in this world, and I was honored to meet this one.  

The circumstances of our meeting were simple. A few years ago Bill Pipkin of Alabama and Dr. Christopher Brigham of South Carolina started a ministry called the Faith Based Claims Association (FBCA). The basic idea is to afford people of faith the simple opportunity to enjoy fellowship and interaction. The organization welcomes people of all faiths, and has held events in conjunction with the Workers' Compensation Institute, CompLaude, MWCEA, and more. 

At the MWCEA, organizers brought an inspirational speaker for a FBCA breakfast, to share her story of injury, recovery, and faith. Having arrived early for my morning presentation, I was fortunate to hear her speak. It was intense, touching, and even humorous. Anyone who can find humor in their personal circumstances is a inspiration in my book. Life can throw a lot at you that you cannot control, but you can always strive to control how you react and respond. I have found that strong people often respond to adversity with good humor.

Her name is Nicole Marquez, and perhaps I am the only person there that had not heard of her before. As she jokingly reminded us, she is "kind of a big deal." She is an articulate, vivacious, and compelling presence. She shuffled to the podium, deprecating at her grace and speed. She introduced herself by playing a video produced by one of those morning television news programs. It documented her circumstances, and I expect that she uses it because of its detail and descriptions, which are perhaps difficult for her to recount. As it played, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. 

Ms. Marquez became a television personality in her teens, a singer, dancer, and actor. She is clearly at home in the limelight. She graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi and moved to New York in pursuit of the perceived pinnacle of Broadway. She recounted a great audition, in which she says she read enthusiasm and acceptance in the faces of her audience. She was exuberant about her day when she returned home only to realize she was locked out of her apartment. 

Lacking keys, roommates out, she was faced with choices she lamented. And, she acknowledges she took an unfortunate path. Being a problem-solver rather than a complainer, she concluded her best course was to enter her apartment through a window. This involved going to the roof of her six-story building, using a fire escape, and more. She was not successful in gaining entry. And, worse, somewhere in that process she mis-stepped. She candidly recounts her last memory of the evening and the next thing she knew she was awakening in a hospital bed. 

Ms. Marquez' mis-step resulted in a fall down an "airshaft," an architectural feature within a building that affords natural light and ventilation to the offices or apartments within. She later learned that she had fallen six stories, landing on her buttocks. This resulted in an array of injuries including a broken back (collapsed lumbar disc, "crushed like a tin can"), a broken neck (internal decapitation), each rib on her left side broken, a punctured and collapsed lung, and a large bleeding laceration. 

She was lucky someone found her. But, that took about eight hours. Bruised, broken, bleeding and unconscious, she lay for eight hours before being found. She describes her medical course. She recounts overhearing doctors lament her condition and express doubts for her survival. Someone told her that a patient coming into the hospital with an internal decapitation was exceedingly rare; the usual result of such injury is immediate death not hospitalization. She was told that while such an injury getting to the hospital was rare, one recovering from such an injury was more rare. 

But, this is a woman of indomitable spirit. Delivering this presentation, she remained upbeat and positive. At only one point did I perceive her tone wavering, when she delivered the line "seven long years later," in describing her course of therapy. At that moment, I sensed a tension. Though her voice never broke, I perceived strain. At that moment, despite her strength and presence, I sensed a slight hesitation, a trial, an extra effort, and the involuntary intrusion of emotion. Perhaps I was alone in that perception, but I spend a lot of my life listening to people. I perceived that "seven years" touches a nerve, even still. 

She was told she would never walk again. She was told a lot of things apparently. Doctors and others were honest with her. They expressed their reservations and pessimism. She was severely injured, and while their job was to repair those injuries, they were realistic with her regarding expectations. She gazed across us briefly and then emphatically said "never tell me what I cannot do." And that spirit is behind Ms. Marquez walking again about 18 months post-injury. She may never run a marathon, but the difference between her and me is that I believe she could run a marathon if she decided to. Me, on the other hand, not so much. I wish I had a modicum of her verve, resolve, and spirit.

The spirit and humor were touching. She jokes about her pace and gait. She related how people may perceive her walking and conclude that she has had too much to drink. She self-deprecated about her slow pace walking to the podium, and periodically thereafter. She exudes confidence, inspiration an accomplishment. Her face shines describing her fiance and his teasing embracing of her as she is. She proudly recounts his acceptance of her aspirations, challenges, and enormous personality. She laughed aloud describing him saying, as she one time walked slowly, "come on memaw." Her spirit has suffered unimaginable pain, fought extreme circumstances, and yet stood before us neither broken nor bent. She stood before us triumphant, indomitable, and uncompromising. 

This life periodically brings us all lemons. Most of us do not go through an experience like Ms. Marquez has, but we all get lemons, curve-balls, and detours. Too often, we sit and complain about them instead of getting up and doing something. Ms. Marquez shared her faith, her recovery, and her humanity with us. She acknowledges that she made a decision to climb that roof, and reminds us that we all make choices every day. We have free will and will make decisions. Some may not be so positive for us, but we decide how we recover from them. 

Ms. Marquez was not a "speak and split" presenter; she stood about seemingly forever afterward. She speaks to everyone, shakes hands, takes pictures and delivers hugs. She is engaged, interested,  genuine, and frankly inspiring. As I watched, I sensed she is surrounded by friends, one of those people who never met a stranger. Here on the Mississippi gulf coast, she is a "home town girl"; she is one of us. But, in fairness, she could appear in any venue and the audience would feel she is "one of us." She has that spirit, that connection, and that presence. Gift or achievement, she is a people person. 

I was inspired to meet her and moved by her story. That story gives pause. I was moved to this post in hopes that her story might touch, move, and inspire you similarly. It is gratifying and empowering, and it draws us to reflect on more than the nuts and bolts of this business. It turns out that we are each in various professions, but we are all ultimately in the people business. We chose how we receive, perceive, and treat those people who we encounter on this journey. We make choices, but often cannot change circumstance. However, each of us can decide how we will react and respond. Any of us might have a chance to be kind to someone today, and hopefully we will each embrace it. 

There will be a Faith Based Claims meeting at the WCI in August. I do not know the details yet. But, I look forward to it and to a brief time of reflections and inspirations among the sometimes frantic pace of our day-to-day. We benefit from our time together, and that can sometimes just be about us, about people. There will be plenty of chances for classes, techniques, and "hot topics" in workers' compensation gatherings. But we must make time to both remember our humanity and to share it with others. 

I now follow Ms. Marquez on Twitter (@Nicoledancer), and will watch for her on LinkedIn. I will be watching this inspiration for what comes next. No, her story is not about workers' compensation. But it is about adversity, engagement, and triumph. It is about humanity. It is about an indomitable spirit that should inspire us all. Though I doubt I have adequately conveyed her presence and spirit here, I hope you are nonetheless as moved by it as I was. 

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