Matt and Brandy Carrier celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary in a room with a waterfront view.
They ordered in a romantic Chinese dinner and dreamed about their future.
But this was no posh waterfront hotel room and nothing close to a vacation. And their future is as uncertain and frightening as it has ever been.
They celebrated their anniversary in a patient room at the Inpatient Rehabilitation Center at Blodgett Hospital. That’s where Matt, 37, was trying to regain strength from a stroke that left him partially paralyzed, unable to walk unassisted and unable to speak clearly.
That’s where Matt was trying to regain his life.
Matt looked out the expansive room-width window in his fourth-floor room and watched fishermen on Fisk Lake.
He dreamed of being out there with them. He dreams about a lot of simple things these days–like walking and talking normally and regaining use of his right arm.
Life had been rolling along for Matt. He was strong and in good health, except for a few migraine headaches. He worked as a rural mail carrier in his hometown of Fremont. He fished, hunted and drove his four-wheeler as often as he could. He loved romping and playing with his two boys.
But on January 6, his reeling and romping came to a sudden halt.
Matt was home alone and had been suffering from another migraine.
Brandy texted him about 2 p.m. that day to ask how his headache was feeling. He texted back.
Sometime after that, Matt went into the kitchen to get another dose of migraine medicine and that’s when his world changed. He felt his right side go numb and he fell between the kitchen and hallway.
About 4 p.m. on that day, Brandy arrived home with sons Lukas, 7, and Dominic, 3 weeks. Lukas ran into the house first.
“Lukas ran back out and said ‘Mommy, Mommy, Daddy is on the floor in a pile of throw-up and he’s not moving,” Brandy recalled. “I called 9-1-1. We thought it was a seizure. He was not able to talk and he was tremoring.”
Emergency crews transferred Matt to Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial Hospital where he was intubated and underwent a brain CT scan. He then was transferred to a Spectrum Health Primary Stroke Center in Grand Rapids for more testing, where doctors saw evidence of a stroke. He was cared for in Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital’s neuro intensive care unit for almost a week before being discharged to inpatient rehabilitation.
“We were very fortunate to come here,” Brandy said. “We can’t say enough good things about the staff and the program. We feel like they truly care about Matt and also the family. They truly care about his success as much as he does.”
“Blessed is the word,” Matt said in a voice left hushed and frail from the stroke.
Matt toughed out four and a half hours of therapy a day in the acute rehab program. He’s motivated not only for himself, but for his family and his beloved sons.
His body is weak, but his heart is strong.
He yearns to play catch and tag with his oldest, and to crawl on the floor with his youngest. He looks longingly at the colorful drawings hanging in his hospital room. They are creations from Lukas and his little friends.
He wants to be back to normal.
A normal dad.
A normal life.
Someday, he thinks…
When Matt first arrived at the rehab center, he couldn’t hold his head up, couldn’t talk, swallow normal food and couldn’t sit up on the edge of his bed. His right leg couldn’t bear any weight.
When he left in early March to continue outpatient rehab in Fremont, he was able to walk 500 feet with a walker.
Center for Acute Rehabilitation speech therapist Stephanie Peper said Matt’s speech has also improved.
When he arrived “he did not have the oral motor movements to make accurate sounds, nor did he have the respiratory support to provide enough loudness to be heard,” Peper said. “Matt worked very hard, even when he was absolutely exhausted from his other therapies.”
Some of Matt’s first words? “Let’s do this.”
Matt is still working on the volume of his voice, according to Peper, but it is much improved from when he first started.
“Our final week in therapy was spent practicing the art of reading to children,” Peper said. “One of his biggest goals was to be able to bond with Dominic, his infant son, so we were able to set up a way that Matt could spend very meaningful time with both of his children.”
Kassie Roon, a Center for Acute Rehabilitation occupational therapist, said Matt didn’t give up when tasks became frustrating.
“We pushed him every day in OT to be able to throw a ball with his son, feed his infant son a bottle, and be able to write his name,” Roon said. “Matt is one of the most dedicated and motivated patients that I have worked with, and I am so proud of how far he has come.”
Besides their anniversary celebration, Matt and Brandy had a “date night” in a suite dining room at Blodgett Hospital. Out of a choice of anything to be brought in, Matt chose a Big Mac and fries, according to Jamie DuVerneay, recreation therapist.
DuVerneay said Matt’s goals were to be able to fold laundry to help Brandy, play ping-pong with Lukas, play on the bed with his newborn and cast and reel a fishing rod.
She said they were able to retrain Matt’s muscles to be able to do all, although in slightly different fashion.
“Matt has had an incredible work ethic and, despite being tired, still worked as hard as he could with the ultimate goal to get back to spending time with his family,” DuVerneay said.
It is unknown how much better Matt will become. But he, Brandy, and the cheerleading therapists and medical professionals standing behind Matt every step of the way are hopeful.
“Nobody knows, but we are told with his age and the way he’s been so far, they’re very hopeful he’ll regain the ability to walk again,” Brandy said. “We’re together in this. We’ve always worked together as a team.”
Matt, in hushed voice, gave a shout-out to Brandy.
“I could not have done this without her,” he said. “I would have given up. She’s been here all the way with me. And my family has been so great, too.”
There are two types of risk factors for stroke: those you can change, or manage, and those you can’t. Stroke risk factors you can’t change include your age, gender, and race, your family history of stroke, and your personal history of stroke. There are other risk factors that you can control. Take steps now to prevent stroke by following a healthy lifestyle.
Stroke affects people of all ages, ethnicity and backgrounds. Fortunately, experts say 80 percent of strokes are preventable. Knowing—and successfully managing—your personal risk factors can help decrease your chances of having a stroke.