WESTPORT — As Katherine Marcus closed in on history with the Greens Farms Academy girls basketball team, the senior co-captain and four-year starting point guard did so with a wide-open set of eyes.
The Dragons are off to a 6-0 record this season—the team’s best start since 2006—and Marcus is enjoying every single minute of it. And she’s making history on the way.
Last week, the team trekked to Hotchkiss, with Marcus needed 30 points to reach the 1,000-point career milestone.
At the school where her grandfather, Sam Marcus, graduated in 1953, Marcus scored all 30 points to get her to the milestone mark.
She is the third GFA girl to reach 1,000 points, following in the footsteps of Lexi Kimball, the school’s all-time leading scorer, and Jasmine Williams, who reached the milestone in 2008.
A technical foul free throw in the final three minutes allowed Marcus to hit the milestone.
“I knew I needed 30 but I wasn’t keeping track of my points, so I was surprised,” said Marcus, who was mobbed by teammates after the game was stopped. “I thought it would happen against King.”
The ideal situation would have been to have it happen inside the friendly confines of the Coyle Gymnasium, but GFA needed every single one of the 30 points Marcus scored.
While the final score appears to be an easy win for the Dragons, it was a single digit game with six minutes remaining.
“We said if we were going to win, we’d need her to play out of her mind and score points and she did,” said GFA coach Jen Harris, whose team was without two seniors, including one starter. “I was convinced she’d do it against King. Maybe I shouldn’t have put it past her. She went out and got them.”
Marcus knows she’s blessed to be a part of the GFA program, surrounded by Dragon teammates and friends.
Getting off to a great start in her final year is simply icing on the proverbial basketball cake.
From time to time, though, she still thinks back to that summer afternoon a little more than four months ago, when fear of the unknown gripped her and refused to let go.
“Now, I can laugh about it,” Marcus said. “I can look back and say, ‘I lived.’ I could have died.”
In late July, while on a four-week trip to Guatemala, Marcus came down ill.
For nearly five days, sometimes fighting a fever of 104 degrees, Marcus tried to battle through whatever it was happening inside of her body.
Thousands of miles from home, in a third-world country where medicine is not high on the list of priorities for most towns and villages, with her parents having no idea what was happening to her, Marcus found herself laying on a hospital table being prepped for emergency surgery.
Every year the students of GFA come home with classic “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” stories.
Marcus’ story is a little more unique.
• • •
It only seemed right that a long-time Dragon family would find an educational travel program like the Boulder, Colo-based “Where There Be Dragons” to experience life beyond Fairfield County and the United States.
The Marcus family had sent a number of their children around the world through the program, so when their youngest child wanted to make a trip of her own, they quickly signed up.
El Salvador, where the family has relatives, was the first choice, but civil unrest made any journey there impossible.
Nicaragua was next, but that too become too dangerous and was removed from the itinerary.
Katherine Marcus couldn’t wait.
“I knew going into the summer I wanted to do a trip,” she said. “I had picked Nicaragua, but a month before the trip they had changed it to Guatemala, which was my second choice, so I was fine with that.”
“Where There Be Dragons” bills itself as a Summer Travel Abroad program for students aged 15 to 20, offering “authentic immersion experiences in developing Asia, Africa and Latin America.”
The program picked its name because “Mapmakers once drew Dragons to represent lands unknown.
Bold explorers who ventured beyond the map’s edge were said to go, ‘Where There Be Dragons.’”
Marcus was already a GFA Dragon, but she wanted to explore.
She flew to Miami and joined 11 other students and three instructors on her journey. From there it was on to Guatemala and the adventure of a summer.
For four weeks, she was immersed in a Spanish language intensive program that also investigated the social injustices that happened to the country.
“We went to eight different places throughout our time there, learning about the genocides that happened and how places were being rebuilt,” Marcus said.
The history was blunt and shocking as the students spoke to people who had their families wiped out by all the killing that rocked the country in the 1980s.
“I didn’t know anything about Guatemalan history prior to going,” Marcus said. “I was in shock. I had no idea. The more I learned, I was like, no, this couldn’t have happened. There were things that just couldn’t be true, just so graphic and so vicious.”
For five days, the group stayed in Nuevo Horizontes, a village of about 30 people, still working to build a brighter future.
“It was farmland given to them after the genocide, Marcus explained. “The government had given it to them because they had murdered all their families. It was so small, no stories or anything.”
During the day, the group would have Spanish lessons and get to talk to survivors about what had transpired.
“I was in complete disbelief, talking to people who lost their whole families,” she said. “You can read about things like this, but experiencing things is totally different. It was only 30 years ago.”
The group also helped take part in programs that helped the region’s fisheries, agriculture, reforesting and women’s health issues amongst others.
A little more than mid-way through Marcus’ journey, she got a sinus infection.
“We went to the mountains and I started to feel weird,” she said. “My body ached, my joints hurt like I had arthritis. It was like an out- of-body experience. It was so strange.”
Others in her group felt weird, too, so everybody just chalked it up to the altitude of the region.
During a trip to Xela, the second largest city in Guatemala, Marcus started taking a turn for the worse.
“I felt like it was heavy to walk,” she explained. “We were supposed to go to a mall and walk around town. I just felt so wrong. I couldn’t explain it. I started crying. Everything just hurt.”
Marcus and one of her new friends stayed together at the mall to rest. Marcus actually fell asleep on the floor for about three hours.
“I got a lot of strange stares,” she said.
The next morning, Marcus felt a little better and decided to make the most of the last week of the trip with her new friends.
“I was in better spirits. I was upset I had missed the day before with our group, so I just decided to power through it. I only had seven days left, and I loved being around them. I wanted to enjoy it.”
The group took a two-hour bus ride to take a hike by a lagoon.
“It was beautiful, and I was glad I did it, but after I was done, I realized I shouldn’t have done that,” Marcus said. “It was starting to hit me full force.”
The next day brought a five-hour car ride on curvy Guatemalan roads.
“I’m never car sick, but I was so cold and getting chills,” she said. “I had stomach pain and the most intense cramping I’ve ever had in my life.”
One of the instructors decided to take Marcus to get checked out.
“I told her there was only six days left, I wasn’t going to die,” Marcus said. “I actually said that.”
They found a pharmacy where Marcus had her temperature taken.
It was 39 degrees Celsius—or 102.2 Fahrenheit.
“That was concerning,” Marcus said. “After that I started getting nervous. I hadn’t felt well in like four days. I was like, oh God, what’s wrong with me? Things were deteriorating.”
Marcus went to a free clinic in the town, one that did little more than provided shots for its residents.
At the clinic, doctors told Marcus she was suffering from “water poisoning” and would be going into “septic shock.”
“It was definitely a questionable place,” Marcus said. “There were holes in the ceiling. It definitely wasn’t a Fairfield County clinic. But, I didn’t have a choice. They were scaring me, telling me I would die if I didn’t have this shot.”
Marcus—who hates needles—got the shot.
Instead of going on the next round of home stays, though, she was forced to stay with her instructors for 24 hours.
“It was the worst night’s sleep I’ve ever gotten,” she said. “I was so sweaty from the fever. I don’t know how to describe it. My body just wasn’t functioning. I was so lonely.”
At four in the morning, one of her instructors came in to give her the next round of medicine. They also took her temperature.
It was 104 degrees.
“That’s not good,” Marcus said.
The next morning, with her temperature still too high, the decision was made to get Marcus more help.
“I just wanted to feel better,” Marcus said.
That, in itself, would be another journey, however.
• • •
Marcus estimates it took about two hours to figure out the logistics of putting such a trip together.
There was a 20-minute ride to the port of San Juan Laguna in an open-door “taxi” that was little more than a motorcycle with two seats in the back.
There was an hour-long wait for the boat to arrive with another 30 minutes of having the boat fill with travelers.
“I was trying to be optimistic,” Marcus said. “Especially because over the entire trip we kept learning the horrible things so many people had suffered, so I felt so bad complaining about a little back pain.”
Marcus remembered one of the men leading her group on a hike and how he had to stop to rest his aching knee.
“He kept saying sorry and explained he needed surgery, but he couldn’t afford it because if he had surgery, he wouldn’t be able to send his son to school,” she said. “I just said, ‘I’m going to suck it up’ because it’s not as bad as some of the things I’ve seen on this trip.”
The boat finally left San Juan Laguna, leading to an hour-long ride to another port.
Once there, Marcus and the program’s lead instructor, tried to get a car taxi for the 30-minute highway drive to the Medifam Hospital in Solala.
When they couldn’t, the two climbed aboard a “Chicken Bus”—a refurbished school bus—to make the journey as close to the facility as they could get.
From there, a 15-minute walk followed, capping a four-hour sojourn.
“It looked like a 7-Eleven,” Marcus said. “I was not very impressed. I asked, ‘This is a hospital?’ and he said, ‘No, it’s a private clinic. It’s even better.’”
It was just a matter of minutes before Marcus was being treated, though.
After hearing her symptoms, doctors started with an ultrasound.
“I was very impressed they had ultra sound,” Marcus said. “I was like, good, they have modern technology.”
“Apendice,” the doctor said in Spanish.
Appendix, Marcus translated in her head.
“I was like, oh God, I hope I misheard that,” Marcus said.
“They told me it was ruptured and with all my symptoms and everything, being sick for five days, they told me I had to have surgery right then,” Marcus said.
As he mind raced, Marcus thought of the paper work she had read through prior to the trip, especially about medical emergencies and the evacuation plan.
“I had read the evacuation plan and knew I’d get flown to Miami. It was only two hours away,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere bigger, but they said no, you can’t go. You can’t have appendicitis for four days. Usually, you have it taken out in 24 hours.”
Meanwhile back in the United States, back at the Marcus family home, her parents, Bo and Julie Marcus, only knew their daughter was having the summer vacation of a lifetime.
Then, the phone rang.
• • •
When Julie Marcus saw the caller ID, she knew something had gone wrong.
“It was an instance of ‘Oh, this isn’t good,’ but I didn’t think she was in the hospital about to undergo surgery,” Julie Marcus said. “I knew they were doing a lot of things, hiking through the jungle, and something could go wrong—a broken arm. I wasn’t thinking appendicitis.”
In what could only be described as a whirlwind hour, the Marcus family called every doctor they knew to find out everything they could about the medical facilities in Guatemala.
They wondered if there was a way they could have their youngest daughter on a helicopter for a quick journey back to United States soil.
They thought about how scared Katherine must be, alone in a foreign land with strangers telling her they were going to cut her open and fix her up.
“Unfortunately, they there was no option,” Julie Marcus said. “They really thought it had ruptured.”
Down in Guatemala, Katherine Marcus finally got to hear her mother’s voice.
“I wanted to talk to my parents,” she said. “I wanted to know what to do. I got to speak to them for about 30 seconds. I was like ‘Hi mom, hi dad, how are you?’ I was sobbing. I was so scared.”
Julie Marcus could hear the fear in her daughter’s voice, but managed to stay strong and calm.
“She was terrified,” Julie Marcus said. “We tried to stay calm and confident. She knew we had friends who were doctors, and said it was fine and the right thing to do and we’d get there as quickly as we could.”
After Katherine Marcus got off the phone with her parents, she made one promise to herself.
“After that, I didn’t cry again,” she said. “I had accepted it. There was nothing I could do. It was going to happen.”
They wheeled Marcus down the hall and into surgery, where they gave her anesthesia.
“Last thing I remember saying was my hand hurt,” she said.
Then everything went black.
• • •
For three hours, Marcus had surgery in a Guatemalan clinic that from the outside looked like a 7-Elevan.
During the surgery, where doctors discovered her appendix hadn’t burst, but was only leaking, they also found a hernia.
The doctors took it upon themselves to repair that, as well.
“Two surgeries for the price of one,” Marcus quipped. “Lucky me.”
She woke up groggy, but she woke up.
She soon tried to sit up, but the pain that shot her through her body was a reminder of all she had been through.
Twenty fours later, her parents walked in ready to take their daughter home.
“It could have been a lot of worse,” Julie Marcus said. “But the program took great care of her and really the doctors did, too.”
It would still be two days before Marcus would be released to return home, but even that turned out to be a good thing.
When she left her summer Dragons back in San Juan Laguna, she thought she’d be returning from the clinic to see them again.
Little did she know her trip would end with the sudden surgery and no good-byes.
“I was so sad at the hospital, knowing I’d be leaving and not getting a chance to say good-bye, but it all happened so fast,” Katherine Marcus said. “But I did want to go home because I was scared they might have messed something up.”
Instead, though, that special group of summer Dragons found a way to come to the hospital, instead.
“After 30 days with people, you really grow close,” Marcus said. “They found a way to come to the hospital and I really needed that. It was so sweet. We were all crying.”
On Thursday, three days after her surgery, Marcus was given the green light to return home.
From Guatemala to Miami to New York City to Connecticut.
Inside the family’s baggage, though, a little piece of Marcus came home, too.
Inside a jar of formaldehyde was her appendix.
“I think we’re going to make an ornament out of it,” Katherine Marcus laughed.
“I told her we should make a necklace out of it, so she could say she still had her appendix,” her mother joked. “She didn’t think that was funny.”
It’s easier to laugh now, though.
“It’s a good fun-fact: I had surgery in Guatemala,” Marcus said, sitting back inside the safe confines of the GFA campus, where Dragons strolled the halls and gymnasiums around her.
The outcome also gave Marcus new perspective.
“I’m glad it happened in some ways because it’s been a humbling experience,” she said. “I lived. That’s a reality that not a lot of Guatemalans would have been able to say.”
Early in the trip, Marcus and her group saw a funeral for an 18-year-old boy who had died.
“We asked what happened and they just said he was sick,” she said. “The fact I could afford that clinic, and afford the surgery, and get flown home. I’m so grateful. It puts things in perspective.”
Marcus had to miss GFA’s cross country season, but she’s back on the basketball court, giving 100 percent.
After the season, and after she graduates, Marcus hopes to get to travel again—even maybe returning to Guatemala.
“I want to go back to the hospital and thank them,” she said. “I wasn’t the most gracious patient. But I want to go to Nicaragua and El Salvador, too. I don’t have an appendix anymore, so what can happen to me? I’m safer now. Whether or not my parents let me, that’s another question.”
Another journey. Another story.
Katherine Marcus is certainly ready to embrace it.
After all, she is Dragon, no matter what school, what country or what program she is in.