One day, Dan DeMatthew was a lively 52-year-old man who mowed lawns and washed cars for his neighbors, shoveled walks in front of the Racine Police Department, volunteered with the St. Catherine High School sports teams, served at the annual Holy Name Society fish fry, and befriended a cognitively disabled man – often taking him to lunch and for a haircut.
Although he worked full time as an administrative manager for the city of Racine, his desire to help others had him volunteering where needed, brown eyes shining at the personal satisfaction received by serving quietly and without fanfare, in the background.
But on a sweltering August afternoon in 2009, Dan’s life changed in an instant – the time it took for the shirt he tied to the handlebars to tangle in the front wheel, flip the bike and send Dan’s head careening into the pavement. As usual, he was on his way to help someone; this time he was planning to mow his mother’s lawn.
The spine injuries Dan suffered that day made him a different person. A CT scan showed no damage to his brain or skull, but an MRI confirmed a central spinal chord injury requiring surgery to fuse three vertebrae in his neck. His injuries resulted in quadriplegia, a significant loss of feeling in his arms and legs.
According to Amy, his wife of 28 years, extensive physical therapy has given Dan some use of his arms and legs, and greater hope that one day he will again walk unaided.
“He is amazing,” she said. “I have worked as a recreational therapist for 10 years and I see how hard he works to overcome the muscle spasms, and how he fights to loosen his frozen shoulder, and build up his strength. He is a very hardworking and determined man.”
|People of Faith
Name: Dan DeMatthew
Parish: St. Patrick, Racine
Occupation: On long-term
disability from the city of Racine
“Remember the Titans”
Book recently read: “Three Cups of Tea,” by Greg Mortensen
Favorite quotation: The poem, “If” by Rudyard Kipling (see below)
(Photo by Gregory Shaver © The Journal Times)
Dan spends much of his day in a motorized wheelchair, needs assistance with his personal care, a hospital bed sits in place of the couple’s regular bed and a wooden ramp built by friends hides the steps to the front door, yet he is not bitter and has never asked, “Why me?”
Rather, he has used his disability as a springboard for prayer and gratitude toward others. The plaque above the fireplace in their home says, “If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it.” While he and Amy raised their children, Joe, 27, and Jamie, 21, in the Catholic faith and sent them to Catholic schools, the injury has given him an opportunity to reflect further on God’s grace and ultimate plan for his life.
“I think that it is time for me now to listen to the Gospel and reflect on things from the past week, be thankful and think about things in a better way,” said Dan. “Things could be different, but I reflect on things to make myself a better person. I have tried to live my life to serve God, but didn’t always take the time to pray like I should.”
Amy quickly corrects him, and reminds Dan that by the way he lived his life, volunteering, helping when asked, and by his daily actions, that each day was his prayer to God.
“I tell him when he says that he feels guilty that he didn’t always pray every day, that everything he ever did in his life was for others and was a prayer,” she said. “He lived a life to serve God but didn’t really realize it. Now, God is picking him up in his life by providing us so many angels who have helped us since day one.”
Indeed, for Papa Dan, as he is affectionately called by students and alumni of St. Catherine High School for the hours of driving to and from sporting events, coaching and cheering the teams, the angels have been showing him how important his life is to those in Racine and beyond.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss; …..
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!
— Rudyard Kipling
“We have had over 55,000 hits on our Caring Bridge Web site that we set up when Dan was a patient at Froedtert Hospital for two months. We have received thousands of cards, prayers and candles lit for his recovery,” said Amy, adding, “And the entire time Dan was a patient, someone was with him 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He was never left alone.”
Before Dan arrived home, the angels descended upon the DeMatthew home to paint, rip up carpeting to allow for an easier wheelchair ride, construct the ramp, build a shed in the backyard, and remodel the garage to allow Dan easier access from the car to his home. Additionally, Racine’s Roma Lodge hosted a benefit for Dan to raise funds to cover his future medical expenses and renovations to their home.
“I have never seen anything like it,” said Dan. “There were close to 3,000 people who came, donated their time and baskets of things to raffle off,” he said. “They served over 1,600 dinners and the lines were so long that not all the people could get in. It was like a big Racine reunion. People gave so much of themselves, and it was so humbling for Amy and me.”
In some relationships, family bonds disintegrate when tragedy happens. One spouse can’t handle the stress of caring for the other, the children become estranged, and the injured person becomes depressed. In the DeMatthew family, the opposite happened. While always close, the family relationship seemed to cement to an unbreakable bond with God.
“Joey lives nearby and has been my rock,” said Amy. “He calls each day to see if we need anything. He senses if anything is going on between us and helps us. We never expected our kids to do things like this at such a young age. We raised them a certain way and are so grateful that they have turned out to be so loving toward us. Jamie graduates in June and will be moving home to help us out and then he plans to go to graduate school.”
|To learn more about
Dan DeMatthew’s story visit
The Racine Municipal Credit Union has a benefit fund in Dan’s name.
Donations can also be made at the Caring Bridge Web site.
Long-term prognosis for Dan is uncertain. The doctors are optimistic and tell him that the sky is the limit as to what he might accomplish. He battles muscle spasms and is looking into acupuncture for pain and an implanted Bacolfan pump to help with the spasms. Dan continues to participate in physical and occupational therapy, and hopes to be able to resume some of his volunteer activities.
“We are so fortunate to know so many good people,” he said. “People have been so concerned and care so much about us and it really makes things easier – we get cards every day and they mean so very much to us.”