By the end of this summer, 33 year old ,Deja Nicolas will have served 16 years in the Army (14 years of active duty and two years in the Reserves). She’ll also have applied to medical school, and will no doubt be preparing to start as a medical student next fall. When I met with her a few weeks ago to talk about the 2023 ,Love Run Philadelphia Half Marathon and being a Legacy of Hope sponsored athlete, I was struck by the positive energy she exudes. Deja’s vibe is one of rock steady confidence, poise, focus, gratitude and persistence.
Originally from Queens, NYC, Deja grew up in a single parent household, relocating a lot as a child. She knows she wasn’t dealt an easy hand in life, but matter-of-factly asserts “it’s not about the hand you’re dealt, it’s what you do with those cards. That’s been my story consistently. If I show up and feel somewhat disadvantaged, I find a way. I’m always asking: How can I be optimistic? How can I make this work? How can I create a community? Although I might not have the means at a given moment—how can I contribute even if my cup might be empty?” Her story bears that out.
Deja always wanted to go into medicine. Her mother is a nurse, which likely cultivated her interest in healthcare. As a teen, Deja attended a health-sciences enrichment camp to start her journey toward healthcare. That journey took an unfortunate but significant turn when she was just 18 years old; she lost her first child to a fetal anomaly but she also shares “I didn’t receive adequate prenatal care. That was a testimony in itself, which strengthened my will.” The day after graduating high school, at age 17, she enlisted in the Army, and over the course of 14 years of active duty, during which she has worked as a communications sergeant and a medical service corps officer leading to promotions to the rank of Captain. This ,Bronze Star medal recipient has served in over ten duty locations, including deployments to Afghanistan. Her most recent overseas relocation was from Germany to Philadelphia. She is currently enrolled full-time in Thomas Jefferson University’s post baccalaureate pre-med program which she completes in April. Deja is also a proud alumna of Fayetteville State University, a Historically Black College and University, located in Fayetteville, NC. Jefferson’s program wasn’t the only thing that drew Deja to Philly. Philly’s running community was also a big draw. The post-bac program director knew about her love for running, even used it as a carrot to help sway her decision, stating “We have so many running clubs here.” Her first year in Philly, Deja ran with several of Philly’s abundant run clubs. “I’m grateful to be in a city like Philadelphia where it’s small but big. There’s a lot of networking and everyone takes care of each other. There is no place you can go in this city where there’s not a point of contact to run.”
Upon relocating to Philly in July of 2021, Deja took on the challenge of running her first marathon—the Philadelphia Marathon. She completed it but sustained a hamstring injury and had to take eight months off. “So I had to learn how to run the proper way, dial in my body mechanics. And here I am tackling a half marathon. I’m convinced that I had injuries leading up to the marathon and that the race put things over the edge.” But, like most runners confronting potential injury, the endorphins and need to run precluded common sense and she kept pushing, ultimately landing in physical therapy. “Recovery took a full eight months, and I came back stronger. Everything feels great and I’m able to listen to my body a lot more. I had to learn everything all over again. Being a student, and studying for 12 to 14 hours a day, I was sitting on the [hamstring] injury which didn’t help.”
Deja’s fitness journey started with her being very active as a child. “I played tennis, I danced, ran track, and played basketball.” She credits the military with helping to hone her fitness skills and “to actually learn how to run.” She typically runs four days a week, with a current mileage of about 10 to 12 miles, which she recently bumped up to 15 to 20 miles in preparation for the Love Run, which she’s aiming to complete in under two hours.
Deja finds her inspiration in multiple places. First and foremost, she’s inspired by her mother and [recently deceased] grandmother. “Those two were the most inspirational. And then being in the military being able to stand on the shoulders of giants—we have our Army Surgeon General, who is the first black medical Service Corps officer fulfilling the highest role in Army Medicine.. He has destroyed barriers and boundaries, giving those that are underrepresented a chance to achieve the highest ranks not only in the Army but in medicine as well. While there are many inspiring people—being in church, exercising my faith, that’s my true inspiration as well.”
Deja found Legacy of Hope through Instagram, and our mission and purpose resonated with her. “Cancer is no stranger to me. I lost an aunt to cancer late last year; of the deaths in my family, I would say 90% of them have been cancer related.” Deja also does cancer research at Thomas Jefferson University. She knows from firsthand experience that cancer’s devastating ripple effects are often overlooked because attention is so focused on patient treatment or recovery; so simple things like getting to the grocery store or even being able to afford food often become problematic.
Selfless service seems to be another driving force for Deja. With thousands of volunteer hours in countless communities, she still drills with the military; she is an intern with Cooper University’s HealthCare Military, Diplomatic, and Field Surgical Affairs Team; she plans to work with ,Soar Detroit, a literacy program designed to help Detroit’s children read at grade level; she also gives her time to ,Black Health Connect, an organization that brings black healthcare professionals together to connect with the community; she works with an organization for the historically black colleges and universities to expose children to those opportunities, and also presents scholarships. “We have to give back to the kids in the community so that we can pave the way forward. ”
She practices gratitude regularly. “How can you multiply and magnify what you have, and help people along the way? It’s about knowing the importance of being resilient, persevering, and understanding that somebody has it worse. Ultimately, it’s all about mindset. Mindset leads to discipline and perseverance which enable us to tap into tools and resources.” Legacy is beyond grateful that Deja is harnessing her amazing energy in order to help our emergency patient support network. You can ,support Deja’s fundraising efforts here. Or soak up some of her positive energy in person as you run 13.1 miles with her. Register at ,Philly Runs Free—and you can run for free when you raise just $250 for Legacy of Hope.