When I first learned of Matthew Slattery’s story, I had the same reaction that anyone would. The circumstances of his injury can only be described as heartbreaking, a feeling that even physicians aren’t immune to. And with Matthew, it all felt especially close to home for me.
Matthew was 12 years old when, while traveling home to Baltimore from visiting family in Ohio, a horrific motor vehicle accident changed his life forever.
His mother Susan, a professor of Mathematics at Stevenson University, died at the scene. His older brother sustained multiple injuries. Meanwhile, Matthew fought for his life, but he ultimately survived the accident with a very severe traumatic brain injury. His father, Ed, was not traveling with his wife or his sons, and received the tragic news by telephone.
As a mother, I can only imagine receiving that phone call.
Matthew was soon transferred from a hospital in Ohio to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. Eventually, he was stable enough to be admitted to the Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit at Kennedy Krieger for intensive brain injury rehabilitation.
It was on his very first day with us that I knew there was something very special about Matthew. You see, Matthew had a “posse.”
When Ed could not be at his son’s side, another member of what came to be known as the Slattery Posse would sit with Matthew. All day and all night, whenever Ed couldn’t be there or just needed sleep, family friends, Boy Scout Moms and Dads, parents of classmates, work colleagues, and relatives could be found watching over Matthew like guardian angels.
And the posse took on many other jobs beyond lending a watchful eye. They provided meals, built a wheelchair ramp at the family’s home, and lent their professional expertise in so many different ways. Most importantly, they demonstrated to all of us at Kennedy Krieger that this was a group of people who knew the true meaning of the phrase, “It takes a village.”
The posse was unlike anything I had ever seen, springing into action when there was just a mention of need. The support that they gave to Matthew and his family during a time of crisis was a deeply inspiring testament to the importance of community and how engaged the Slattery family had been in theirs before their tragedy. It was obviously a way to show appreciation to a much-loved family.
As a physician, there is a danger in over-identifying with your patients. One can lose objectivity which might impair clinical judgment, and I was very aware of this when Matthew became my patient. I saw so many similarities between the Slattery family and my own. I have two boys myself and work in an academic setting. My family is active in the community, especially Cub Scouts. I could see my own sons in Matthew, and his mother was never far from my mind. I couldn’t help but imagine my family without me. What would happen to them? Would we have a posse?
I thought many times about a saying that a wise pediatric intensive care physician often said: “There, but for the Grace of God, go I.”
When Matthew finally left us on the inpatient unit to move to our outpatient transition program, there was not a dry eye around. We all knew that it wasn’t going to be easy for Matthew. His brain injury resulted in a very different little boy going home than had left on that family trip to Ohio last summer.
I can only try to express the reassurance I felt in knowing that the posse would continue their mission. In that way, the Slattery family is blessed in ways that many people will never know. There’s no denying the sadness in this story, but it stirred something in me. In communities all across the country there are families facing tragedy and in need of help. Whose posse will you join today?