He was first hit by a car in his Iowa hometown when he was 12.
“It was 1982. I was riding my bike with some friends in front of the high school,” said Nichols. “All I remember seeing was headlights. The driver said that he didn’t see me. Me and the bike flew 30 ft. up in the air. It was just crazy.”
Nichols broke both legs and was in a body cast for several months.
“I tore the tendons in my left leg and had a compound fracture in my right. The break was so bad that the bone went through the skin,” said Nichols.
During his freshmen year of high school, Nichols was diagnosed with leukemia.
“I was playing football and we had two-a-day practices,” said Nichols. “The first day of practice, I had headaches, these really bad migraines. I came home and threw up. Tuesday, I had a nosebleed. I never had one before then. I woke up and screamed to my mom, ‘the whole pillowcase was covered in blood.’ The third day, I couldn’t go to the bathroom. On Thursday, during the afternoon practice, I just laid on the football field in pain.”
His parents took him to the local hospital where doctors thought he was suffering from the effects of sickle cell anemia. His parents were not convinced and took Nichols to a larger public hospital in Des Moines. Doctors there determined that he had cancer and put him on a three-year chemotherapy regiment, where he lost weight and most of his hair.
“Losing your hair is embarrassing,” said Nichols. “The first time I saw myself, I was bald and my eyes looked black. I looked like the devil.”
Nichols lost 35 pounds in the first two weeks, eventually weighing only 80 pounds. Nichols made and lost friends during this chemo treatment.
“There was this girl that I use to feed crackers to. Her parents never came to see her. They knew that she was going to die and she did. It was so sad. Cancer is so sad,” said Nichols.
His leukemia took a toll on his emotions.
“I would scream to my mom, ‘what’s going on with me?’” said Nichols. “For the first three months, I was so emotional. The doctor said that little kids, ages 4 to 6, get this kind of cancer, not a teenager like me. He said that I didn’t have good odds of surviving. But I’m a survivor. I got better. The doctor said I was his miracle patient. I knew I was sick but I didn’t think I was going to die.”
When Nichols was 17, his family moved from rural Iowa to Sparks. He attended Sparks High School and after graduating worked at Circus-Circus.
“I would walk to Circus-Circus, walking sometimes at midnight, down Fourth Street,” said Nichols. “I have good memories from back then.”
After the stint at the casino, Nichols worked at Wal-Mart and the front desk at the post office.
He later ended up bumping into a woman he had a crush on in high school.
“He is the sweetest guy in the world,” said Nichols’ fiancée, Tracy Valdez. The couple first met when Valdez was 19.
“He asked me to be his girl but I refused,” said Valdez. “Fifteen years later, after I moved and came back to Sparks, the first person I ran into was Derrick. He helped me learn things like the bus system, since I didn’t know it, and we just spent all our time together. And then, like that, we’re together as couple.”
Nichols injury streak soon continued after proposing to Valdez.
“In January 2005, I was hit in an accident. I just bought a new Toyota Corolla,” said Nichols. “I was driving Tracy back and forth to work and I was hit by a big truck that ran the stop sign. The car spun around and around.”
Nichols had a concussion and bleeding in his brain. He was in the hospital for five days.
“The day before the accident, he bought a $300 suit,” said Valdez. “I wanted him to wear it to anything but his funeral. It was scary time.”
Nichols was back in the hospital when he suffered a stroke in April 2013.
“His daughter came to see him and noticed that his shoes were on the wrong feet. He was walking into walls and asking for his mom. His tongue was swollen and he couldn’t speak,” said Valdez. “We went to hospital. The doctors asked him how tall he was. Derrick said he was 7-feet-5. He must have thought he was a basketball player. It was so sad at the time when I first heard his response but we laugh about it now.”
Nichols spent 41 days in the hospital.
“I was told to tell his family to come up to say goodbye or wait for the funeral,” said Valdez. “In the hospital, his room was right next to the coroner’s office. We would ask Derrick where he was and he would point to the office next door.”
Both Nichols and Valdez believe it was the family’s faith that helped heal Nichols during his stroke.
“My family sings at church. I’m in the gospel choir,” said Nichols. “My cousin and aunt came to the hospital and sang gospel songs all the time.”
Valdez helped her fiancee recover by introducing him to the things he forgotten after his stroke.
“I bought a picture book from the dollar store,” said Valdez. “I would read the words to him and point out the different things in the book. I had to be strong for him. Sometimes, it was difficult, like when he couldn’t remember a family member’s name. But I kept encouraging him. He has recovered so fast. It’s such a blessing.”
After he was released from the hospital, a physical therapist was sent to Nichols’ home.
“She saw him get up and move around. She said that he didn’t need her,” said Valdez.
Nichols still continues with his physical therapy, hoping that he will get to use his right hand eventually. Life proves to be challenging at points when people acknowledge his disabilities.
“We were at the Nugget and the bartender heard Derrick’s slurred speech and saw the way he walked. He thought Derrick was drunk even though he wasn’t,” said Valdez. “That’s when I become very protective of him and want to fight back.”
Despite the judgments and assumptions, Nichols remains positive, looking forward to getting married and spending the rest of his life with Valdez.
“You can never give up. I never gave up. I have God by my side and I keep praying to him,” said Nichols. “The only thing you can do is to keep going.”
Television show: “General Hospital”
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
Sparks restaurant: Bourbon Street buffet
Sparks event: the Best in the West Rib Cook-Off