Matt Maier got his first dirt bike at age four and raced in his first competition when he was five, launching a passion for motocross. By the time he was 18, Matt was racing at a professional level when he wasn’t working at his day job as a welder.
On Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, Matt was competing in day two of the American Motorcyclist Association Arenacross Series, which involved a race course created in what is now the Panther Arena in Milwaukee. His parents, his best friend and his girlfriend were all there cheering him on, and Matt remembers that he was racing well that night.
But during a challenging part of the course known in motocross lingo as the “whoop section,” Matt missed a jump and flew forward over the bike handlebars. As his body landed, he “knew right away that something was majorly wrong,” he said. Emergency medical services transported him by ambulance to the adult Level 1 Trauma Center at Froedtert Hospital.
Stabilizing the Spine
When he arrived at Froedtert Hospital, Matt met emergency medicine physician Dan Worman, MD, and trauma and critical care surgeon Lewis Somberg, MD, MSS, FACS. Diagnostic imaging revealed fractures in Matt’s sternum, T4 and T5 vertebrae with spinal cord damage that had paralyzed him from the middle of his chest to his feet. The paralysis was likely permanent.
The team scheduled Matt for surgery early the following morning with neurosurgeon Christopher Wolfla, MD, who has a special focus in spine trauma. It’s important to move quickly to stabilize a fractured spine, Dr. Wolfla explained; this allows patients to start their rehabilitation as soon as possible and to avoid the potential problems of lying motionless, including pneumonia and pressure sores. “During the surgery, we use screws, hooks and rods to build a bridge around fractured areas to hold the spine in alignment, so it can heal properly,” Dr. Wolfla said.
Learning to Live With a New Body
Within hours of his surgery, members of the physical medicine and rehabilitation team visited Matt. The team includes physical therapists, physicians who specialize in physical medicine and rehabilitation and mental health professionals. “We get involved as soon as possible,” said physical medicine and rehabilitation physician Merle Orr, MD, who collaborated with colleague William Waring, MD, to care for Matt. “It allows us to set fair expectations for the patient and start discussing discharge planning.” They consider what the patient needs to return home and move forward with life.
Dr. Orr calls that time in the hospital “a crash course” for paralyzed patients, who must learn a host of new skills to live life in a new body. These include bathing, dressing, using the bathroom, conducting skin checks for pressure sores and doing “transfers,” the process of moving from the bed to a wheelchair or from a wheelchair to a chair or car. The physical therapy room at Froedtert Hospital includes the shell of a car for patients to practice, and Matt remembers working hard to master the transfer and to dismantle and stow his wheelchair in the car.
In the hospital, Matt completed three hours of physical and occupational therapy six days a week, which felt exhausting to someone recovering from trauma and surgery. But as a life-long athlete, Matt also appreciated the routine and felt driven to regain his strength. He still thinks about something Dr. Waring told him during this period: Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do.
Matt recalled that his friendship with a fellow motocross rider who was paralyzed in a 2012 racing accident was particularly motivating. His friend went to the hospital the night of Matt’s accident to provide support and was encouraging throughout the recovery process. “My friend was a big pretty influence,” Matt said. “He told me, ‘Things are really bad right now, but they will get better.’”
On March 6, six weeks after his accident, Matt left Froedtert Hospital to move in with his parents in Hartford, Wis. He continued therapy, and by May, he had purchased a used Honda Civic and outfitted it with hand controls, so he could get back to driving and regain his independence. “The day I got my license and vehicle was probably the best day after my accident,” he said. He is currently working at a packaging equipment company.
Missing the thrill and competitive edge of motocross, Matt purchased a go-kart in fall 2015 and installed hand controls in it. Soon, he was hooked and visiting go-kart tracks around Wisconsin. He entered his first race in April of this year. “When I’m in the go-kart, you wouldn’t know I’m paralyzed,” he said. “Racing against other people and being competitive again — it’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
When he looks back on the crash and his recovery, he is glad he had the support of the adult Level 1 Trauma Center at Froedtert Hospital. “I met so many people there who were really caring and good at their jobs,” he said. “They knew what they were doing. I could see that they were confident, which made me confident.”