Hofstra Film Student Overcomes Back Injury To Make Senior Film

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Just about every movie where a character is rushed to the hospital has a point of view shot of ceiling lights rushing past them as they are wheeled on the gurney. That’s what Nick Nolan saw first hand.

Some interns shove their hands into Nick’s sides to test the location of his organs. They try to slide him onto a different gurney.

“Stop! Stop!” a bald, older doctor comes in yelling. “He has a broken back!”

Nick was in too much pain to comment or thank his more experienced examiner, but he was grateful. It would take three doses of morphine to bring the pain down to a manageable level. Then he starts thinking about how such a seemingly small event could change his life.

The thoughts racing through his head included “How long am I going to be here? Will I walk again?”

The movie he has to make the upcoming school year hasn’t even surfaced yet. Nick is a senior film major at Hofstra University. That means it’s time to make a film to show the world what he is capable of as a director.

But you don’t see too many directors rolling around set in a wheelchair.

Several hours earlier, Nick was at Jones Beach with his girlfriend, Kristen Brown, and three other friends. It was July 15, with the weather fitting the date. The ocean was refreshing but nothing that would turn your lips blue after 20 minutes.

At only 130 pounds, Nick is used to getting roughed up by the waves. He body surfs (swimming as hard as you can with a wave behind you and putting your arms out to glide onto the shore with the water). He disappears under the water for a few seconds at a time.

But one wave curled him and he went down, not in. Nick somersaults in the water and instantly feels it. “Shit,” he mouths with his eyes wide open in the ocean water.

“I just need to get back to land,” he thought.

Trying to stand, Nick collapses to his knees about ten feet from the sand.

“His face was in a really painful grimace. And he let out this holler,” Kristen describes.

She runs into the water, lifting his arms hoping to support him. The life-guards start to take notice.

Kristen gets him to land, and Nick rolls onto his stomach. Every thing is blurry to him, as a contact lens was swept out of his eye while under water. The life-guards roll him over gently and slide him onto a hard board. The one in charge asks Nick if he can move his head. Nick shows him that he can.

“Don’t move your head!” he screamed.


Silver Linings On a Trip to Hell

Nick gets carted off on a cart to the bathhouse, where he will be taken to Nassau University Medical Center from there.

It is decided that an ambulance may be too bumpy and make the injury worse, so a helicopter is called in to bring him to the hospital.

The paramedic on board tilts Nick’s the stretcher ever so slightly so that nick can get a peek out of the window. Nick shut the eye he lost his contact from so his view isn’t obscured.

“It was beautiful out of one eye.”

Upon getting to the hospital and being pushed below the movie-like lights, he was constantly checked to see if his reflexes worked, put through an MRI, and then sent to the ICU.

At this point the doctors were able to tell Nick exactly what was wrong. There was a three-point compression fracture in his T6 vertebrae, or his Thoracic spine.

This left him with two options: an external brace on his torso meaning he would have very limited movement for about five months, or an internal brace made of titanium to support his spine through spinal fusion. The latter also involves a very invasive surgery.

After consulting his parents, Nick decided the surgery would give him the mobility needed to make his movie the coming year.

The six-hour procedure involved inserting two titanium rods and eight titanium screws. The surgeons had to sprinkle bone shavings from donors that would fuse with Nick’s bone so it completely healed.

The surgery actually went surprisingly well, all considering. Nick was incredibly sore due to the muscles being pulled so the surgeons could get to the spine. But three days later he was able to slowly walk, his hospital gown showing the 34 staples running down the middle of his back.

Nick left the hospital a few days later and went back home to Arlington Heights, IL to rest before school started.


Filmmaking With a Broken Back

Flash forward to January 2013, the semester that Nick has to make his film. Expected to make a full recovery by June, Nick estimates that he is at about 70 percent recovered while making the film.

“Even if it hurt, it didn’t matter,” Nick said about the project.

Senior film majors are expected to make a film between three and 12 minutes long entirely on their own budget. That means hiring actors, finding sets, and creating props.

Nick’s script is done. It’s a dark comedy about a dog sitter who visits to the worst thing possible, a dead dog. She then has to find a way of disposing it, stuffing it into a brief case and taking it on the NYC subway.

This meant that Nick had to find a realistic prop and shoot on the subway, something illegal without a permit. He is only cleared to lift 50 pounds, meaning he would need all the help he could get on the actual shoot.

Nick shot the weekend of March 15. He managed to condense the shoot to two days, instead of three, both to save money and be easier on his back. But he has a sinus infection, and sneezing doesn’t exactly feel good with titanium rods supporting your spine.

The first day was 20 hours, with shooting taking place from noon to 3:00 am and hours of preparation beforehand.

Nick’s sound mixer and fellow classmate Matt Orlando described the day as “grueling” but “incredibly successful”.

“The apprehensions that he had because of his back [were gone]. He was so focused on making his film that he forgot about his injury,” Matt said. “It was inspiring to see everyone working so hard.”

The next day, Nick shot on the subway for eight hours. Luckily for him, it was a Saturday, so the commuters were at a minimum. But cops were not.

Riding from Brooklyn to the Bronx, police officers chased them off at one stop, with Matt doing his best to hide the boom mike.

“That was such a fun day. We had a very guerilla style work flow,” Nick describes.

Now Nick is able to sit and relax, editing his film on his home computer. He says he feels about 90 percent recovered.

“I proved I could do it,” Nick says with a wide, proud smile.

Nick’s film will premiere May 17 at the Hofstra Student Film Festival. He hopes to move to New York City after graduation and continue working with film. Check out an exclusive clip from the film below.

By Matt Dougherty


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