Life can come at you fast, sometimes. The curves, bumps and roadblocks along life’s highway often force us to take detours.
Marka Rodgers, a trained ballet dancer, moved to Charleston in 1989, three months before Hurricane Hugo arrived. She was a single mom with a 1-month-old son and planned to open her own dance studio. Her passion was teaching and showing others how a body’s movement can communicate and connect through an unspoken language.
She took a job teaching dance, but needed additional employment and a job with health benefits prompting Rodgers to apply for a job with the James Island Fire Department. After a couple years, she realized how much she enjoyed working with EMS personnel and decided to delve more into the world of emergency medicine. By 1993, she was an EMT, an emergency medical technician.
The trained dancer who had performed as a ballerina throughout Europe, was now rushing people to the hospital in the back of an ambulance. All seemed to be in balance. Life was good, until it wasn’t.
Trauma and drama
In 1994, while transporting a large patient into the old St. Francis Hospital, the gurney collapsed trapping Marka underneath. The weight crushed her cervical spine and left her as a walking quadriplegic. That designation means there is not complete neurological damage to all four limbs.
Marka spent the next six years getting stronger. She also used ballet, in combination with medical therapies, to accomplish this.
In early 2001, some doctors at MUSC, saw her body movements during a therapy session in a swimming pool and asked if she was a dancer. They wondered if she’d be interested in teaching others some dance movements as part of other patient's recovery efforts.
“It wasn’t pretty dancing,” she recalls. Her body would fatigue easily, but it returned her to her first love, teaching others to dance. Life was getting good, again. Her son graduated from high school. She was teaching in different studios around town. Marka was getting stronger each day and the road to recovery seemed smoother and smoother with each step — until it didn’t.
In 2012, a young woman ran a red light at a Mount Pleasant intersection and T-boned the driver’s side of Marka’s vehicle. “I tried to reach for my phone, but couldn’t move,” she remembers. Once again, she suffered injuries to the cervical spine and was left immobile from the shoulders down. “I was terrified. I was having to start all over again, but I was not going to quit.”
Her designation of a walking quadriplegic changed to incomplete quadriplegic. Her spinal cord was dislocated, but not severed. She was partially paralyzed and destined to spend much of her life in a wheelchair.
A reason for hope
These days, Marka is a full-time wheelchair user with physical limitations. She drives a van that’s modified with controls that allow her to get around town. Through the use of a mechanized knee, an aid for walking, she’s able for short periods to exercise and cook dinner.
Her life is different, certainly not how she imagined it when she arrived in the Lowcountry almost 30 years ago. If you want to keep up with her these days, though, you better pack a lunch.
She speaks to support groups and mentors others facing spinal cord injuries. She recently was one of two delegates from South Carolina to meet with government representatives in Washington, D.C., seeking understanding and awareness for their challenges.
She despises the word disabled. “I say I’m differently-abled. We’re no different than anybody else. We want to be part of the community and participate freely.”
She works with the City of Charleston’s Commission for Disabilities emphasizing why bathrooms need larger doors while seeking stricter penalties for those who abuse handicap parking.
Guess what else she’s doing these days? She’s returned to teaching dance — from her wheelchair. She instructs advanced students, those who already have the basics.
“I survived this for some reason,” she candidly admits. She’ll also admit to moments of frustration, but is quick to add, “as far as I’ve come, I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Marka Rodgers sets goals and works every day to achieve them. As much as she’s accomplished, what is left? “I want to dance with my son, if he gets married.”
I wouldn’t bet against it.