It was one of the defining moments of the Invictus Games, exemplifying its spirit of self-sacrifice and comradeship.
Flush with success at having just won gold, Elizabeth Marks took her hard-fought medal from around her neck and pressed it back into Prince Harry’s hands.
The US Army Medic had a simple request – that the Prince should pass the medal on to Papworth Hospital, in thanks for saving her life when she fell critically ill two years ago.
US Army Sergeant explains why she gave her Invictus Games gold medal to Prince Harry
On Wednesday Prince Harry made good that promise when he presented Sgt Marks’ medal, which she won for the 100 metres freestyle at the games in Orlando last month, to the hospital’s senior medical team at Kensington Palace.
The Prince told them that Sgt Marks’ was “over the moon” and “very excited” about the prospect of her medal being handed over and that she had asked him to thank the team for what they did.
Prince Harry also expressed his own gratitude for their remarkable efforts in saving the young soldier’s life. “From all of us, it’s just a huge, huge thank you to all of you,” he said.
Sgt Marks was serving as a combat medic in Iraq in 2010 when she suffered severe hip injuries which left her with no sensation in her left leg.
After undergoing four separate operations over the space of 18 months, Sgt Marks took up swimming as a form of rehabilitation, despite her injuries rendering her temporarily blind and leaving her frequently feeling faint.
Impressed by her sheer drive and determination, an Army coach convinced her to enter the Invictus Games, organised by Prince Harry as a way of helping injured servicemen and women recover their pride, confidence and sense of purpose.
But on her way to the inaugural games in London’s Olympic Park, in 2014, Sgt Marks became seriously ill and went into respiratory failure as a result of a serious lung condition.
With fluid filling her lungs she was taken to the specialist heart and lung hospital in Cambridgeshire, where she was put on a life-saving machine called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). This adds oxygen to the blood outside the body to give the lungs time to recover.
After 12 days at Papworth Sgt Marks was transferred to a US military hospital in Germany.
Prince Harry met the Papworth team, led by Dr Alain Vuylsteke, the hospital’s clinical director, at Kensington Palace, where he spoke to them about Elizabeth’s condition and the efforts of staff to save her. He also told them Sgt Marks had broken down in tears when she told him about her treatment.
The Prince said he had been told that Sgt Marks had only a 35% chance of survival when she was admitted to the hospital and Dr Vuylsteke and his colleagues agreed her condition was indeed that serious, if not worse.
Prince Harry went on: “Something else that she told me while we were in Florida – I don’t know whether you’ll agree to it or not – she said that it was a blessing in disguise landing in London and going to Papworth because Papworth is undoubtedly the best place for someone having this condition.”
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“That’s very kind of her,” replied Dr Vuylsteke, adding: “We’ve got the best system in place to support this kind of problem. I’m not sure that she would have received the same services anywhere else. So, in her bad luck, she was very lucky.”
Lead ECMO nurse Jo-anne Fowles, who helped treat Sgt Marks, said: “She was asleep the whole time she was on ECMO and very, very ill and we all remember her because of the Invictus Games and the publicity around the Games … so to have a world-class athlete who was obviously very sick made an impact on all of us.”
The medal will be placed on display near the unit where Sgt Marks was treated. The hospital hopes to eventually start a fund in her name to help finance the development of equipment and support patients.
Sgt Marks, who followed in the footsteps of her father- a Vietnam veteran – by signing up for the Army at the age of 17, has said she believes that Prince Harry has a special affinity with people who, like himself, have served their country in conflict.
“I think he knows what it’s like to walk the same path that we have and he really cares generally and how can you not care about him back?” she said.
Sgt Marks, who still serves in the US Army, expressed her gratitude to the Prince for carrying out her request to present her medal to Papworth. “So grateful,” she wrote on Twitter. “Thank you Prince Harry.”