By Robert Stephens
Shortly after 2 a.m. on May 16, 2015, the medical staff at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C., began pulling declaration of death paperwork for Marcie (Swilley) Washington ’83. A blood clot had done what no obstacle had been able to do during Washington’s 54 years: It stopped her relentless heart.
Half an hour earlier, a nurse found Washington on the floor of her hospital room. By the time doctors responded, the heart that drove Washington to become the first African-American woman to earn an engineering degree at UCF had been still for at least five minutes.
They quickly began resuscitation procedures on the heart that empowered Washington to break scoring records as a player on the Knights basketball team. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. After 22 minutes, there was nothing more they could do to revive the heart that inspired Washington to explore the unknown during a storied career at NASA.
Everyone left the room except for one nurse.
The most dreaded middle-of-the night phone call would be made to the Fort Washington, Maryland, home where Washington lived with her family — husband, Larry; children, Talia, Tyreese and Taurus; and her mother, Erma.
The nurse reached out to touch Washington’s femoral artery one last time. “Wait …”
This is not an obituary.
When Larry and Erma arrived at the hospital, Washington’s heart was beating again, though there was still no guarantee she’d survive until sunrise.
“It wasn’t pleasant to see her like that,” says Erma, who, upon walking into her daughter’s room at 3:30 a.m., went to a window to pray. (Larry still has a difficult time talking about “that night” as the family calls it.) “She was transcending, leaving us. But as I stood there praying, I received an unspeakable peace, as if I was being told, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ ”
By late morning, Washington’s resilience had driven family and friends to their knees in thanks.
Her heart had just taken a long break during an amazing journey. Washington was going to be OK.
It’s the fall of 1979. Washington has just begun her studies at UCF, and the young university is little more than a gap in the forest. Forty-five minutes away, Walt Disney World has become Florida’s biggest tourist attraction, and the nation’s space program has taken root on the coast. Things are changing around — and within — UCF.
Whether she realizes it or not, Washington is about to blaze new trails of her own.
“From as far back as I remember, she was always very driven and determined, but she’s always been too respectful of others to consider herself first,” says Barbara Brown ’96MS, who grew up with Washington in Palatka, Florida, and now works as the chief technologist at Kennedy Space Center.
Of the 12,022 students enrolled at UCF in the fall of 1979, Washington and Brown estimate that fewer than 5 percent were black. The number of African-American women to earn a degree from the engineering college? Exactly zero. Washington would change that.
“I never thought of it as doing something that hadn’t been done,” Washington says. “I love math and science, and I’m outgoing, so I knew industrial engineering would be a good fit. That was my focus. The instructors and students didn’t treat me differently. Being a black female in the engineering college? It didn’t faze me.”
It also didn’t faze her when she and her fellow first-year students were told at orientation that half of them who planned to study engineering would find the work too rigorous and change majors.
“It’s true, I wondered if I’d make it through a few classes,” says Pam Ford ’83 ’91MS, who studied engineering and roomed with Washington during their first year. “But being around Marcie every day helped. She was like the Energizer Bunny, full of optimism, ready to finish whatever she started.”
Washington had a tight schedule, which included waking up at 5:30 a.m. for basketball practice. Despite the fact that she was among the leading scorers in Florida during her senior season at Palatka High School, Washington had to earn a spot on the UCF roster as a 5-foot-6-inch guard on a partial scholarship.
“I loved the challenge,” says Washington, now 58. “Growing up, I had to prove to the boys in the park that I belonged.” Washington’s scrappy style stamped an identity on a UCF team that went 23-9 in just its third season of organized play.
“I don’t want to read about dying. I’m only interested in living.”Marcie (Swilley) Washington ’83
“She was unstoppable on and off the court,” says Ford. “To this day, I’ve always wondered how she did it.”
Washington admits, however, that she had one brief period of doubt toward the end of her freshman year. The stress of basketball and her course load led to a fear of letting others down. That spring, she called her mom to tell her she wasn’t sure she could continue juggling it all.
Erma knew that Washington needed reassurance. “If you want to come home, we’ll find something else for you,” she said. “It’s going to be OK, Marcie.”
It’s going to be OK, Marcie. She coveted those words. “It took the pressure off. I knew everything would be fine from that point forward.” Set free from her fear of failing others, nothing would deter her from graduating and starting a career as an industrial engineer — not even failing a class the next semester. All she’d needed was a little comfort from home.
Washington was recruited by Kennedy Space Center over dinner at Red Lobster. “I laugh when I think how recruiters would come to UCF to interview black engineering students,” she says. “There weren’t many of us to interview.”
Convinced that NASA wanted her intelligence and not a skin color, Washington decided to temporarily ditch her ideas about working at Walt Disney Imagineering. She’d give the government one year of her professional life. One year.
When she arrived for work at the space center, she saw the computers and the launchpad and the team that would work on the shuttle program. To a self-proclaimed math and science junkie, it was like arriving on a new planet.
“On my second day, I got my security clearance and stood there under the space shuttle,” Washington says. “I was trying to keep my cool, but it literally made me breathless. I knew right then I’d work for NASA until someone threw me out.” (No one would. She retired 33 years later.)
At that time, she had never heard of mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan, the African-American women who helped make America’s earliest space launches successful in the early 1960s, would remain relatively anonymous until the release of the book and movie Hidden Figures in 2016. There were subtle similarities in Washington’s experience early on. “Some people assumed I was a note taker,” she says. “But again, none of that fazed me. I had the best job with the best organization in the world.”
Washington worked in the Mission Planning Office of Shuttle Operations at KSC, tasked with writing schedules for the shuttle, and calculating factors such as orbiters and ground equipment to determine how many missions could be planned by the year 2000. Her fascination with code and technology piqued whenever service people came into the office to work on the computer system, and she’d often ask the techs questions while they worked.
“That epitomizes what we’re about at NASA,” says Brown. “She was humble enough to ask for counsel and critiques, she had the desire to excel, and she couldn’t get enough of it.”
But nothing prepared Washington for what happened on January 28, 1986. Shortly before noon, she stood inside the space center for a countdown before stepping outside into the cold to watch the shuttle Challenger lift off from the nearby launchpad and — 73 seconds later — break apart.
“I thought, ‘Am I seeing what I think I see?’ The offices were quiet for weeks. What can you say? We didn’t know where the program would go from there.”
Washington was about to head into uncharted terrain again. Among the changes made in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, NASA transferred their most highly trained experts to its headquarters in Washington, D.C. Washington was among the people chosen to re-energize the space program.
The teams worked ridiculous hours, breaking old paradigms about space-lab development and experimenting with new programming ideas for satellite delivery. Washington thrived on the work. She also made inroads in places like Moscow and Germany, never thinking about the fact she was often the only black woman among white men until one morning when she had no way to curl her hair and no one to lend her a little help. Using reverse engineering, she ripped a brown paper bag into strips and created her own rollers.
“That’s why I felt so right at NASA,” she says. “It embodies the American spirit and a lesson my parents instilled in me: Don’t tell us there’s something we cannot do.”
Washington would need to heed those words again, years later, when she faced her biggest obstacle yet.
While getting ready for work one day in 2014, Washington slipped on the stairs and initially thought she’d pulled a muscle in her back. When she finally went for an MRI, she and her family received unexpected news: Washington had a mass in her back and was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells.
And so started her chemotherapy journey.
Two years before the diagnosis, Washington had been ordained as a minister at Fort Foote Baptist Church in Fort Washington, Maryland. The little girl who committed her life to Jesus at 9 years old was now the Rev. Marcietta Washington.
“That’s where she’d always drawn her strength and optimism,” says Ford, who coincidentally moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1992, four years after Washington moved there. “In college, no matter what was going on, she leaned on her faith in the Lord.”
Despite being unable to stand for more than two minutes at a time and the bones in her back turning brittle enough to break, she continued working for NASA and studying anything that made her a better engineer, minister, wife and mother.
“Some people assumed I was a note taker [at NASA]. But again, none of that fazed me. I had the best job with the best organization in the world.”Marcie (Swilley) Washington ’83
There was one subject, however, that she refused to learn about: multiple myeloma.
“I don’t want to read about dying,” Washington would say. “I’m only interested in living.”
Early on May 16, 2015, she needed all of it. The optimism. The faith. The friends from her days in Palatka and Orlando and at NASA. Word that her heart stopped for minutes before restarting spread so widely that more than 30 people would eventually arrive at the hospital. There, a doctor told her family, “I have no idea how she’s alive.”
No one could explain what happened next either. As the family discussed options in the likelihood of brain damage, they heard a voice: “I’m not brain-dead.” From her bed, less than 24 hours after nearly dying, Washington proceeded to state and solve the quadratic equation.
Point made. She would need that kind of resolve to relearn all the basics — how to sit up, how to eat and how to walk again.
“The athleticism kicked in,” Washington says. “When I played basketball, no matter how tired I was, I never wanted to come out of a game. It must be a part of me.”
After two weeks, Washington was out of the hospital. A week later, she completed the rehab that was supposed to take three weeks. One by one, the barriers kept coming — and she kept overcoming them. A broken back. A bone marrow transplant. Being her own donor for the bone marrow transplant. She grew so weak that, for a while, she needed three hours to regain her strength after brushing her teeth. Through it all, she remembered how her dad, who died when she was 15, told her to fight for anything important: better streets in the community, an engineering degree, life.
“It’s strange to hear my mom tell people how I died ‘that night.’ I wasn’t really dead, but I have chills right now just talking about it. To be where I am now, I think of how my mom and dad told me I could do anything when I was growing up, and how everything would be OK.”
When Washington walked back into church after being absent for several months, the pastor stopped everything and watched her move to a seat. Row by row, parishioners stood up to applaud. “Take a good look, ladies and gentlemen,” said the pastor. “This is a real-life miracle.”
Washington officially retired from NASA on February 28, 2017. But she did not stop working. As she says, “I can’t preach from the grave.”
Ford made the 40-minute drive to Washington’s church recently to listen to her college roommate’s sermon. “I saw the same energy and determination that I saw at UCF. It hasn’t changed in nearly 40 years,” she says.
Washington’s determination is being put to the test once more — she started cancer treatments again in March last year. She tires easily. But she also travels and reads and passes life lessons to anyone in her path. She talks about moving forward and working for what you believe in, about the value of respect and faith. And yes, she now stresses the importance of pausing to catch your breath. Because when you do that, maybe you can hear the simple-yet-powerful advice her mother offered during her freshman year: It’s going to be OK.
She entered UCF as Marcie Swilley in 1979 and, four years later, left behind a list of firsts:
First African-American woman to graduate from the College of Engineering
First women’s basketball player in UCF history to score 1,000 career points
First player to lead her team in steals for three straight seasons. Only three players have done it since. She still ranks fourth all-time in steals (250) and sixth in assists (326) in UCF’s record book.