As a performer, everyone always tells you to break a leg. Few, however, actually do so.
One exception: Liza Dye, an up-and-coming comedian from South Carolina who fell off a New York City subway platform in February and was struck by an arriving train.
Dye survived the accident, her ordeal capturing the hearts of many prominent comedians.
Though the train rolled over Dye’s left leg causing severe injury, including a fractured fibula, it did not crush the 25 year old’s comedic spirit.
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Upon hearing subway passengers in the car above her grumble about being delayed, Dye shouted she was sorry to make them late for work.
Then, glancing at the entanglement of her lower limbs and machinery, Dye turned to the rescuers trying to free her and asked, semi-seriously, “Do you think my leg is going to come with me?”
Nine surgeries and a nearly three-month hospital stay later, Dye is back at her mother’s home in Spartanburg, still on the mend, but counting all her limbs.
Gone, for now, are the days of doing stand-up each day in New York clubs. Now, it’s a struggle just to stand up. Dye, who uses crutches to get around, hopes to walk unassisted by summer’s end.
‘It’s a rough life’
Dye had gone to New York in January 2012 after dropping out of the College of Charleston in the middle of her junior year. She found work in New York as a fashion blogger, eventually trying her hand at comedy.
Being onstage was nothing new.
Dye had performed in high school with The Spartanburg Little Theatre and the Imagine That! Improvisational Theatre Troupe, which addresses a range of social issues — including racism, domestic violence and suicide — through its performances.
In Charleston, she took part in college theater and was a member of the city’s PURE Theatre. Despite all that experience, the only comedy Dye remembers trying was playing a part in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
That changed last summer when she performed a stand-up routine for the first time. Dye says she was terrified but did not bomb. Dye was successful enough to increase her performances, many unpaid, from once a week to multiple times a day in New York’s ultra-competitive comedy scene. She was trying to make a name for herself, as well as something close to a living.
Despite the positive reception from audiences, Dye struggled to make ends meet. After giving up her apartment in Brooklyn, she couch-surfed among friends’ apartments. Then, she lived in a rented U-Haul van for a while, until the vehicle was repossessed with her belongings inside. She also went without health insurance.
“It’s a rough life,” Dye says of the beginning comedian’s plight. “You have to enjoy making people laugh.”
Still, the struggle seemed worthwhile.
Dye started performing regularly at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and was part of a group audition for “Saturday Night Live,” following criticism that the long-running comedy show featured no female black comedians. The L Magazine named her one of the 30 “young Brooklynites we envy most” less than 30 years of age, among other praise.
Then a train smashed into Dye in a SoHo subway station on the morning of Feb. 13.
Some initial news reports said Dye had been texting when she fell off the subway platform. Dye says she fainted and fell to the tracks, waking up only after being struck by the train’s lead car. She resents, she says, some New York media “trying to put a generational stamp on her” by blaming her fall on texting.
Once freed from the train, Dye was taken to Bellevue Hospital Center, where friends came to visit. One friend called Dye’s mother, Geri, in Spartanburg, to give her an update on Dye’s condition.
“She’s fine. She’s just sitting up in bed making jokes,” the friend told Geri Dye.
“Fine?” Geri Dye, an artist, remembered thinking. “You don’t get hit by a train and feel fine.”
Geri Dye joined her daughter in the hospital, spending weeks sleeping beside her in a chair. Also sharing the room was an elderly woman who was sweet by day but seemingly possessed by demons at night, said the Dyes.
More bothersome was Dye’s left leg, which doctors discussed amputating. It had been sheared to the bone by the train and caused Dye tremendous pain. She fought the doctors when they considered amputating it, but that resolve sometimes wavered in the face of her suffering.
Geri Dye said her daughter’s foot looked like a fleshy boot, cut clean of skin above the ankle and connected to her thigh by near-naked bone. Doctors, she said, had to trim away dead tissue between the ankle and knee.
What was left resembled a “pot roast that falls apart and you have to put back with a string, but (the doctors) used staples,” said Geri Dye. “Little by little, they got it into the shape of a leg.”
The initial regular changing of Dye’s bandages was painful, requiring a trip to the operating room each time the leg was redressed.
“Like taking skin off chicken,” said Geri Dye, who researched the recovery of Boston Marathon bombing victims to help her daughter draw inspiration as her leg slowly healed.
‘Feeling some kinship’
Critical, too, to the boosting of Dye’s morale was the support of other entertainers who banded together to raise more than $75,000 for her hospital bills. Among the many who helped Dye were actor Zach Braff and big-name comedians Louis C.K., Janeane Garofalo, Chelsea Peretti and Hannibal Burress.
Aziz Ansari, also one of the country’s top comedians and a native of South Carolina, helped raise money for Dye, too, visiting her in the hospital.
In an email to The State, the “Parks and Recreation” star wrote: "I didn't know Liza before the incident but as soon as I found out she was a comic from South Carolina, I couldn't help but feeling some kinship. The least I could do was do some benefit shows to raise some funds. Since the accident we've become friends and still keep in touch. I can't wait to see her in NYC doing comedy."
Dye was grateful for all the attention and help, calling Ansari “such a nice person.”
“The support was just incredible. I’m still in shock at how it all came together,” said Dye, who despite all this support, still faces substantial unpaid medical bills.
Her spirits lifted, Dye tweeted funny comments and posted videos from her hospital bed, including one of herself whispering, “Blast off,” as she pressed the button on her pain-medication pump.
Dye’s pain medications, which included ketamine, dulled her pain but also caused instant hallucinations.
“I was on this pink rainbow riding through space,” said Dye, who also envisioned a dog sporting a hoodie. “If anybody does that drug recreationally, I pray for them.”
Days after being discharged from the hospital late this spring, Dye performed a comedy set in New York, telling her audience she was glad to be out in public again.
“Places I’d rather be than Bellevue Hospital: Chris Brown’s arms. Hell. (L.A. Clippers owner) Donald Sterling’s heart,” said Dye, who performed in a wheelchair.
Happy to be home
Now recovering at home in Spartanburg, Dye has plans to perform more comedy later this summer before eventually moving to Los Angeles and rebooting her career. Despite all the attention she received in New York, Dye, whose father passed away when she was 12, is happy to recover in South Carolina with the aid of her mother.
“I’m just happy to spend some time with her,” said Dye. “I’m alive and I get to eat everyday and don’t have to drink out of a straw and be bound to a wheelchair.”