Bringing Back Matthew

by Kristina
Rolfes
Image Matt and Teressa in occupational therapy
November 2, 2012
After surviving a horrific car crash, Matthew Slattery defied expectations in his recovery from traumatic brain injury.

In an instant, the Slattery family was shattered.

Susan Slattery and her two sons, Matthew and Peter, were on their way home from visiting family in Ohio on a sunny August day in 2010 when tragedy struck. A truck driver fell asleep at the wheel, barreling into Susan Slattery’s car and pushing it under a tractor trailer, killing her and critically injuring 12-year-old Matthew and 16-year-old Peter. Peter fractured his pelvis and eye socket, while Matthew suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, losing 80 percent of his blood.

Matthew’s father, Ed Slattery, was at work when he received the unimaginable phone call. Ed raced to Ohio to be with his sons, while friends and family in the Baltimore community held vigil and prayed. Matthew underwent brain surgery, and spent 30 days in an Akron hospital before being stabilized and transported to Johns Hopkins, and then to Kennedy Krieger’s inpatient pediatric rehabilitation unit.

Never Alone

Matthew, who was a happy, exuberant 12-year-old before the accident, lay in an unconscious state. Matthew’s eyes were opening, but held a blank stare—he was not responding to his name or to pain. Brain scans showed he had damage to his brain stem, the part of the brain responsible for vital functions, such as breathing and heart regulation. His prognosis looked grim. But Ed never stopped believing that Matthew would recover, in large part because he knew he was in one of the best rehabilitation hospitals in the world. “Kennedy Krieger is the hope center of the universe,” he says.

Ed, who was the only parent now, had to take on the role of both mother and father for his sons while grieving for his wife and trying to help Matthew recover. He worried that Matthew would wake up alone and scared at a moment when he was at home with Peter. “The thought of Matthew waking up alone was unbearable,” says Ed. So family, friends, and neighbors rallied around, taking turns sitting with Matthew when Ed couldn’t be by his side. “Matthew was never alone, ever,” recalls Ed.

Slowly, Matthew began to show some progress, but even the smallest movement came only after herculean effort. At first he could move only his left index finger, and only slightly. “I would watch him trying to move his finger for minutes, and his finger would just quiver,” recalls Ed.

One of the pivotal moments early in his recovery came when doctors capped his tracheostomy tube to see if he had the ability to breathe unassisted. The seconds ticked by and Matthew began to breathe on his own, first one minute, then two, and when the timer hit five minutes, everyone clapped. Ed put his head down and sobbed. With the help of doctors, therapists, and sheer determination, Matthew was one step further on his path to recovery.

Coming Home

When Matthew was stable enough to return home, the moment came for Ed to tell Matthew that his mother had died. He told Matthew how much his mother loved him and how proud of him she was. He held Matthew as he said the words no parent should have to utter to a child. Matthew couldn’t articulate his feelings, but he could still cry. His therapists took turns hugging him as the tears flowed.

At that point, Ed had no idea how much or how little progress Matthew would make. The only thing Ed was sure of was that Matthew still needed intense therapy. So when Matthew was ready to be discharged, he began outpatient therapy through Kennedy Krieger’s Specialized Transition Program (STP), spending up to six hours a day engaged in occupational, physical, and speech therapy, as well as education. This intense therapy helps repair the brain in a process known as neuroplasticity, in which the neurons in the brain begin forming new connections to replace the damaged ones.

STP fills a unique niche in rehabilitation from severe injuries; it provides treatment for patients who no longer require round-the-clock medical observation and therapy, but who still require intensive therapy before full return to the community.

“For patients like Matthew who have sustained a severe traumatic brain injury, returning home is often a catalyst for a burst of recovery,” explains Joan Carney, EdD, director of STP. “Being able to be in their home and with family every evening, yet still have the advantages of therapy-rich activity every day at STP for the continuation of their recovery, is often the perfect prescription.”

A Twinkle in His Eye

Matthew had always had a sense of humor, and his therapists were trying to use that as a way to reach him. His therapist blew raspberries at him, and Matthew laughed out loud—a beautiful sound to his father and his therapists. Soon, Ed began finding ways to tap into a 12-year-old boy’s sense of humor—an iPad app for bodily noises garnered huge belly laughs from Matthew. And being at home with his father and his brother Peter, who was healing well from his injuries, seemed to bolster Matthew’s spirits.

Matthew was beginning to respond to his environment, although it was unclear whether or not he could understand speech. But before long, Matthew could shake his head yes or no in response to a question, and he learned how to use an augmentative communication device. Ed could tell he was improving when he asked Matthew if he was a girl and Matthew got a twinkle in his eye, hit “yes,” and then laughed hysterically. The old Matthew was beginning to shine through.

“Matthew never lost his personality, and we’re so thankful for that,” says Ed. “He has always been funny, very, very bright, and spontaneous.”

Then came the day Ed had been hoping and waiting for since the accident. One February day when Ed asked Matthew, “Do you love your dad?” he answered, clear as day and much like any typical 12-year-old, “Yeah.”

“The day Matthew started talking was huge,” says Dr. Carney. “Everybody remembers that day—we were all incredibly excited.”

Therapists used a multitude of therapies with Matthew to improve his gross and fine motor skills, balance, self-care, coordination, cognitive understanding, eating, and communication. Physical therapists put Matthew in a gait trainer, a harness that holds the patient while moving his legs in a walking motion in an attempt to “wake up” muscle memory. Soon, he was walking up to eight feet with the gait trainer, and then up to 40 feet. His occupational therapists used robotic therapies to strengthen his hands, and soon he could move his entire left arm and most of his right arm. His speech therapists worked with him to gain control over his voice.

Matthew made amazing progress at STP, surpassing everyone’s expectations. After several months, he began attending Kennedy Krieger School at Fairmount while continuing his therapy part-time.

Life as Therapy

Outside of therapy, Ed tried to keep Matthew involved in as many activities as he could—camping with the Boy Scouts, biking on a two-person tandem bike, adapted sailing, and hanging out with friends. “My attitude is that Matthew can do whatever we imagine him doing,” says Ed. “You give them as many experiences as you can, never knowing which ones will resonate with them somehow.”

While dealing with the personal aftermath of losing his wife and nearly losing his son, Ed advocates for others who may find themselves in similar circumstances. He has testified for safety measures in the trucking industry and has made donations to the hospital in Akron where his sons received treatment, to the first responders who helped save Matthew’s life, and to Kennedy Krieger to help other patients like Matthew. He knows firsthand how much therapy is needed to help patients recover from severe injuries, and he wants to ensure that others in need have the same access to therapy.

Today, two years after the accident, Matthew, now 14, can sing and talk, do multiplication, play chess, write his name, draw, walk short distances, and go anywhere he wants in his power chair. He is working toward becoming an Eagle Scout, and participated with his father in a 130-mile bike ride with the Boy Scouts last summer.

He still faces major challenges every day—he struggles with everyday functions that others take for granted, like eating and drinking, getting dressed, walking, and talking. But for Ed, and the many people whose lives Matthew has touched, every day with Matthew is a gift.