If I had a magic wand, I would use it to prevent the illnesses and accidents that lead children and young adults to the inpatient rehabilitation unit at Kennedy Krieger. I would stop cars from crashing. I would stop cancer cells and tumors from growing. I would stop diseases that cause paralysis.
Unfortunately, my medical degree didn’t come with the additional title of Fairy Godmother. If it did, I could have used my magic wand on October 19, 2008. On that day, I would have stopped Matthew Silverman, a vibrant young teenager who loved music and fishing in his home state of South Carolina, from becoming ill.
His illness was abrupt and devastating. Matthew himself knew something was wrong as his body showed the early signs of transverse myelitis. His arms and legs felt weird. He rapidly became unable to breathe as his paralyzed body suddenly could not provide him with enough oxygen. He asked for someone to call 911. Matthew suffered not only a spinal cord injury, but also anoxic brain injury, on that terrible day.
Matthew came to our Inpatient Rehabilitation unit in December 2008, directly from a pediatric intensive care unit in South Carolina. His stay at Kennedy Krieger was full of medical challenges; He needed a ventilator to help him breathe. And, although many of our patients make what some would call miraculous recoveries, Matthew did not return to the young man he was on Oct. 18.
At Matthew’s bedside through it all were his parents, Stuart and Dona. Stuart, who worked in pharmaceutical research, would assist our team with ideas for medication trials to help Matthew improve. Dona became an expert in caring for Matthew. She learned so much about how ventilators work that she could have become a trainer for respiratory therapists and nurses. All the while, Dona and Stuart were tireless advocates for their son.
By May 2009, Matthew was ready to return to South Carolina, though he was still on a ventilator and still dependent on others for all his care. But, while Matthew’s story is one of heartbreaking illness, it is also a story of inspiration.
I have remained in touch with Dona and followed Matthew’s progress since he returned to South Carolina to live with his family. He has learned how to use augmentative technology to help communicate with his friends and family. This means he can now ask for his favorite foods, like cheese puffs, and write messages to his parents for holidays like Mother’s and Father’s Day. And Matthew is back in school, enjoying his interactions with his teachers.
The Silverman family’s story is one of unwavering love. They may miss the “old” Matthew, but they truly embrace the feeling that every day with him is a blessing. As they strive to optimize his quality of life, their complete devotion to their son is evident to all who meet them.
I see this same devotion and love in many of the families of patients on our inpatient unit. And, until I get that magic wand, I will continue to be inspired, as a physician and a mom, by the strength of families in the face of devastating illness and injury.