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By Deb Zigler, Kitchener Ontario

Matthew's StoryThe afternoon of June 8, 1995 would change our lives forever. A mother gets up in the morning and goes about her day, often not thinking about what could happen later on. I have a different perspective now and am grateful for every moment I have with my children and family. I will never take that for granted again.

My oldest son, Matthew, who was then 17 and excited about summer holidays and exploring work opportunities, crashed his motorcycle. The accident happened in the parking lot outside our apartment; he wasn’t wearing a helmet and his then 15 year old brother Michael watched it happen. A neighbour rushed to the scene and with Mike’s help, kept Matt alive until the ambulance arrived. The local newspaper report the next day stated that the young man “suffered non-life threatening injuries.” Anyone who has observed a family member in a coma and on life support understands that this is definitely life threatening!! To this day I can visualize the emergency room when I got there-my son, on a stretcher, covered in blood, clothes cut away, a nurse pushing air into his lungs with a bag, in a comatose state. I touched his arm, praying silently, tears streaming down my cheeks, that Matt would live. Michael was devastated and inconsolable, blaming himself for not, somehow preventing the accident.

The social worker assigned to our family was calming, but calling family and friends was a huge test of emotional strength. Matthew had sustained a traumatic brain injury, with extreme damage to all lobes. He had a skull fracture, an epidural hematoma (removed two days later in surgery), and multiple other open wounds and breaks. He was on life support and the scans showed that there was not much brain activity. Before long, infection started in all the open wound areas and nothing was working to get that under control.

The I.C.U. waiting room was soon filled with Matt’s many friends and our family, all struggling to come to terms with the extent of this situation. Mike’s grief was overpowering and he spent countless hours near his brother, as if to will him back to life. The question was then asked of us, to pull life support or not? We all knew Matt as an intelligent, athletic, fun, hard working young man and knew he would never want to live in a prolonged, non-functioning state. But, what if there was a chance for getting better, for Matt’s brain to heal? What to do? We prayed, we talked, we begged God and we waited, putting off the BIG decision. In my optimistic way I thought I could deal with the outcome, hoping we could bear it, no matter what. First we had to get through this period. And Matthew did.

My journal entries during that time record the steps along the way, the anguish, the excitement and the pain.

  • Day 22-out of ICU, moved to another wing, not breathing alone, moving arms and legs erratically
  • Day 25-IV out, nourishment by feeding tube still
  • Day 30-breathlng alone, eyes open, no focus
  • Day 40-eating jelled foods, no bladder control, recognizes us!!!, very fearful, loud noises create outbursts, cursing and very angry, hitting out
  • Day 45-relearning colours, numbers, left/right, some bladder/bowel control, restless, walking with help, 24 hour attendants started to assist with behaviour control
  • Day 60-brushing teeth/shaving alone, angry and agitated, dressing with help, paces constantly, unaware of surroundings,
  • Day 75-using phone to call home (remembers that number!!), writing with both hands, showering alone, finally asking about what happened.

And on it went for the next 2 years. The case manager assigned to Matt’s case tried her best to assist with needs and the steps of rehab. I could never have negotiated the system without her and am so blessed that my insurance provided her for Matthew. Often I asked myself if I could handle the next crisis, the pain, the lack of sleep, the worry, the long rehab process. Somehow Michael and I got through, often one moment at a time. Many would disagree with me, but not “pulling the plug” would be a decision I would do differently today. Although Matt has made an amazing recovery, every day is a huge struggle for him and the deficits make life very difficult for him.

I believe that his amazing recovery can be attributed to a few things: God made a miracle happen. Matt has inner strength and will power to outwit the injury. The case manager implemented a great rehab programme and personnel to work with Matt. The nursing care was beyond exceptional. Mike and I gave the situation our undivided attention, filling in for hours when staff was not available, pushing and working with Matt to relearn and adapt. We both became very brain injury savvy!

The process was rocky and one of the hardest things we have gone through together. Matt was left with lots of scarring which was mostly fixed with plastic surgery. He has a short term memory deficit and compensates with electronic devices to keep his life on track. He tends to have a “mask” face, which comes across as angry and he works at using appropriate expressions. He can usually control the angry outbursts and is sometimes almost indifferent. Fatigue is a huge factor, along with ongoing pain. He has learned to manage his lack of control over appetite and temperature. Matt has pushed the limits of his brain injury and surpassed things the medical team said were impossible.

Matt works successfully at a trade, owns a home, built his own backyard deck, scuba dives and travels. He works out daily and pushes himself to be the best he can be. I got my son back in body, but a totally different person and with a whole unique personality. That has been very hard to adjust to and deal with emotionally. For Michael, the trauma of watching the accident and then working with me, putting our lives on hold, has created Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, with years later effects. Financially we struggled through that period and the cost to the system and insurance was incredibly high. It did bring a huge awareness for our family, of the need for helmets.

For Matthew though, the price has been high. We saved his life, but at what price? He has the biggest daily life struggle imaginable and I can’t do it for him. He often does it alone. As time goes on he is able to become more fulfilled and a participating member of society, giving back when able. For the rest of us, we love him, try to connect however we can and hold the guilt at bay.

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