Matt’s Story: Head Injury

A poor decision nearly cost Matt his life. But state-of-the-art neurosurgical and neurocritical care, dedicated therapists, and family support gave him a chance to start over again. Today, in what is proving to his best decision ever, Matt is studying to become a certified occupational therapy assistant, striving to join the ranks of those who helped him come back from a traumatic brain injury suffered in a 30-foot fall.

Matt was 22 years old and drifting, earning just enough as a waiter to pay his bills, when the accident occurred. The last thing he remembers from that day is stopping to get beer on the way to a canoe rental on the rural outskirts of Cincinnati.

“We were canoeing on the Little Miami River and drinking,” Matt says. “The last time we had gone canoeing, we jumped off a bridge into the river for a little thrill. I decided to do it again. But I was drunk. My feet were wet, and as I climbed up toward the bridge I slipped over a rock and fell onto some rocks on the river bed.

“I was lucky and had good friends who were there. One of the girls who was there was in nursing school, so she stayed with me while another friend ran out to the road and called an ambulance.”

Matt was airlifted to Cincinnati’s University Hospital, which has the region’s only Level 1 trauma center. Ronald Warnick, M.D., Chairman of the Mayfield Clinic and Director of the Brain Tumor Center at the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Institute, performed an emergency decompressive hemicraniectomy, removing a large portion of Matt’s skull on his right side, near his right temple, to make room for the swelling brain.

Matt remained in a coma for two and a half weeks. He spent 16 days in University Hospital’s neuroscience intensive care unit (NSICU), where his condition was overseen by Lori Shutter, M.D., a neurointensivist and Director of Neurocritical Care, and monitored 24 hours a day by nursing specialists. He was then moved to Drake Center, Cincinnati’s long-term rehabilitation facility.

“I really started to remember things when I was moved to Drake,” Matt says.

During his three months at Drake, Matt learned how to brush his teeth again, how to hold a fork, how to put on his socks. In so doing he experienced first-hand the enormous contributions made every day by his rehabilitation teachers: Drake’s physical therapists and occupational therapists.

“They had a board in the head-injury unit that outlined your schedule for the day,” Matt says. “I looked forward to going to PT and OT.”

During that process Matt decided that he wanted to work in occupational therapy himself. His younger sister, Kaitlin, arrived at the same decision. Four years later, in the spring of 2009, she received her master’s degree in occupational therapy from Ohio State University. As a future occupational therapy assistant, Matt observes with a smile, he could end up working for his sister.

“Before my accident, neither of us had any healthcare ambitions,” Matt says. “Kaitlin was an education major, and I was not even in school.”

At Right: Matt, his sister Kait, and his daughter Ariana

After his discharge from Drake, Matt lived at home while continuing his recovery. “My parents have been very supportive,” he says. “I couldn’t have done it without them. They let me move back in, and they paid my bills for a long time. I didn’t have insurance when the accident happened, and they went through the process of getting me enrolled in Medicaid. I’m very close to them.”

Matt eventually secured a job as a nurse’s aid and enrolled in the occupational therapy program at Cincinnati State University. He expects to earn his certification as an occupational therapy assistant in 2010. Matt also stepped up in his role as father to his young daughter, who was born when he was just 19. “She helped pull me through this,” Matt says. “I had to keep working for her, to be able to provide for her some day.”

Some of Matt’s scars remain. When he looks in the mirror, the first thing he sees is the indentation in his right temple, a permanent reminder of his unfocused past and crushing fall. He also adds that his memory is not as good as it was before.

Yet Matt has never seen the world more clearly.

“I’ve changed a lot,” he says. “Before this happened I was waiting tables, just kind of scraping by. I never thought things through before. I just paid bills and used whatever money I had left. I never saved anything.

“And now, after this, I have new ambitions. I went back to school and into healthcare. I’m a different person. All it took was falling off a bridge.”

* * *

Hope Story Disclaimer – This story describes an individual patient’s experience. Because every person is unique, individual patients may respond to treatment in different ways. Outcomes are influenced by many factors and may vary from patient to patient.


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