Matt Bowen: Not Letting Paralysis Paralyze My Life
Matt Bowen shares how an accident that left him paralyzed transformed his life. He has learned, grown, and is now sharing his story of hope with others.
Matt Bowen is a Utah native and has always been very active playing football, basketball, lacrosse, and anything else he could get into. He graduated from high school in 2009, served an LDS mission in France, and attended Utah State University. In March of 2015 he was in an accident where he broke his neck, which left him paralyzed from the chest down. He did not let this slow him down and he graduated from USU with a Bachelor of Science in Management Information Systems just six months after his original expected graduation date. Matt then married his sweetheart, Sloan. He has since gone biking, skiing, parasailing, scuba diving, skydiving, and more. He currently works for Master Control as an onboarding support engineer. His family lives just down the street from Tamara, so she has watched as he has dealt with his diagnosis without letting it paralyze his life.
Matt's accident occurred when he was on a spring break trip in California. He and his friends were hanging out on the beach and body surfing. On the last day of their trip, Matt was body surfing. He started to get tired and decided to catch a wave in, just like he had done dozens of times.
But for whatever reason, this wave was different. The wave shoved Matt head-down into the sand and he felt a pop. He immediately knew something. Matt decided just to ride the wave out and not try to move or fight it in any way. After the wave subsided, he was floating face down and tried to flip over. That was when he realized he couldn't move. He held his breath as long as possible but couldn't see anyone coming.
Once Matt got to the point where he was going to have to breathe, he said a prayer. He told Heavenly Father to save Him if he wanted and if not, he would see Him in a few minutes. Then Matt's body forced him to take a breath of water. A few seconds later he was flipped over by one of his friends.
He remembers saying, "I'm dead, I'm dead." His friend told him that he wasn't, but Matt insisted that he was paralyzed. His friend helped him float to shore and the lifeguards put him on a stretcher and kept him alert. He was taken to the closest hospital where he had a few surgeries.
At the hospital Matt was diagnosed with paralysis from the chest down without functioning hands or arms. The only thing he could move was four toes on his left foot. He is still regaining movement of his big toe on that foot.
Matt was on a lot of medication at first. Because he had taken so much water into his lungs, he developed pneumonia. He was connected to a breathing tube and in and out of consciousness. When he would wake up, he would thrash around and try to remove the breathing tube, so he was placed into a medically-induced coma.
When he was brought out of the coma, Matt was very confused. He doesn't even remember the doctor telling him that he was paralyzed. He sort of came to the realization that he was paralyzed, but he says it seemed temporary. In his mind he was going to be up walking and back to normal. Matt was going to be just like the many stories he'd read of incredible comebacks. The diagnosis became harder and harder to swallow the further along he got without much progress.
Matt says there wasn't really a definitive moment when he realized his paralysis was permanent. He remembers the doctors on the rehab floor showing him videos of paralyzed individuals who had learned how to navigate everyday life and he remembers thinking, "Good for them, but that's not me." He started going to a state-of-the-art outpatient facility with a walking machine and he was sure that was what was going to get him up and moving again. But as things dragged on, he started to realize that maybe it just wasn't in the cards for him right then.
Even now, Matt doesn't believe that he won't ever get back to walking. He just accepts that he isn't there yet. He says without that hope, it is hard to keep going some days.
The Ultimate Goal: Eating a Double-Double
Matt says the hardest part of his recovery was not being able to drink anything. The doctors had to perform a tracheotomy, a procedure where they cut a hole in your throat, so that Matt could recover from the pneumonia. Because of that, he had to relearn how to eat and drink. Matt was hooked up to a feeding tube for a while, so he wasn't getting anything in his mouth.
He would beg for water swabs where they would take a sponge on the end of a popsicle stick and wet his mouth. Toward the end of his time in the ICU in California, he convinced one of the nurses to give him root beer on a mouth swab and he says it was like manna from heaven. Matt said his ultimate goal was to be able to have a Double-Double from In-N-Out Burger and wash it down with some root beer.
Loss of Independence
While the little things like eating and drinking were hard at first, the biggest difficulty for Matt was the loss of his independence. He was beholden to others for anything and everything. He didn't have the strength to push himself in the wheelchair yet. Matt had to have someone feed him, give him a drink, push him wherever he wanted to go, help him in and out of bed, in the bathroom, and get dressed.
That was extremely frustrating for Matt. But it also helped him become motivated to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to regain some independence, because he knew he didn't want to continue to live like this. He slowly learned to dress himself again. Something that once took him two minutes now took him close to an hour. Matt has since brought that time down but it still takes him longer than the average person.
Matt also had to learn how to use a cellphone again as he has no finger function. He learned to strap the phone around his hand and use a stylus to tap. Throughout the process of honing in his new skills, Matt also started to learn that life isn't necessarily all about independence, but rather interdependence.
Lessons Along the Way
Lesson #1: Be Patient
Matt says being patient with himself was extremely difficult, but doing so was the only way to really overcome and make progress. He compares it to running a marathon. It can be difficult to learn to run for that many miles.
For Matt, his marathon was the minute details of everyday life that everyone else could do in a matter of seconds or minutes. He started to understand that his lifestyle was just different. He had to be patient with himself because the more frustrated he got, the more difficult things became.
Lesson #2: Ask for Help
The second most important lesson for Matt to learn was that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Not only is it a sign of strength, it actually allows you to become stronger.
We have these real struggles and Matt agreed that God didn't put us here to do everything all on our own. He believes we would all gain great new perspectives from opening up to each other.
Matt personally saw things much differently after being able to talk to people about their struggles. He says that people were more open with him because his struggles were so visible. Others saw him as the guy in the wheelchair and were grateful that they didn't have to deal with that. But for Matt, he was grateful that he wasn't going through what they were experiencing.
Lesson #3: The 10 Minute Rule
Another crucial lesson that Matt took to heart was the 10 minute rule. When he was in the hospital, his brother came to visit him. He was venting to him about how difficult it was and asking him why God would allow this to happen. Matt didn't think he was strong enough to have to face this.
Matt's brother empathized with him, but then he gave him some advice. He challenged him to keep his complaining to just 10 minutes each day. Other than that, he wanted him to do whatever he could to overcome his obstacles. His brother also said that he could roll over the minutes if he didn't use them all one day, and save them for a particularly difficult day.
Matt knew right away that his brother had just given him some great advice. Putting the challenge into practice made a world of difference. Some days, Matt did need 5-10 minutes to cry and complain. But afterwards, he shifted his mindset to "I can do this." It opened up a whole new world of possibilities for him.
Using the "Roll-Over Minutes"
There were definitely setbacks along the way, and on those days Matt was grateful for his rollover minutes. On one occasion when Matt was learning to eat again, he took too big of a bite of his sandwich and choked a little bit. He tried to wash it all down with some Gatorade but ended up aspirating (or taking the Gatorade into his lungs). About an hour or two later, his oxygen sensor started buzzing and the doctors called a code.
At first Matt thought it was a mistake. But the doctors discovered Matt was only absorbing about 80% of the oxygen. Just like that, Matt was moved from making great strides on the rehab floor, back to the respiratory ICU eating ice chips. But even though he had to use his rollover minutes, Matt had experienced that shift in his mindset and he couldn't dwell on it too long. He knew he had to keep fighting.
Lesson #4: It's Ok to Feel Your Emotions
While Matt tried to limit the time he spent being upset, the setbacks helped Matt learn that it was ok to feel his emotions. For most of his life he had hated feeling emotions and swept them under the rug. He still hated that he had to deal with so much of his emotions during this time, but he learned that it's ok to have those feelings and you have to embrace them.
It's ok to need your 10 minutes. Feeling the emotions was important. This allowed him to vent that emotion. Matt also learned he had to consciously decide not getting stuck in those emotions, which allowed him to move forward.
Lesson #5: Life is About Interdependence
The biggest lesson that Matt has learned is that life is about interdependence. He met a quadriplegic at outpatient therapy while he was still recovering. This man had been in recovery for longer than Matt and it looked like Matt like he had everything all figured out. He had overcome it all and had all the right answers.
But one day, this man had to be picked up when he fell out of his wheelchair. It was a very frustrating experience for him. He explained that he had realized life was about interdependence rather than independence.
Life is about learning to depend on each other and learning and growing from those experiences, rather than being the head honcho that thinks they can do everything themselves.
Independence and Interdependence
Matt says he started to realize that while he could learn some things that would contribute to his independence, he was probably always going to need some help throughout his life, and that's not a bad thing. It's wonderful that he can ask for and get the help he needs. He says that interdependence is so fulfilling and opens up a new world of possibilities. Matt would not have been able to do some of the things he's done without accepting help.
Matt says cultivating a pattern of interdependence really helps to grow your relationships. When he is having a bad day where he just wants to do something himself and refuses help, he says it can hurt his relationships. All his friends and family want to do is help him be successful, just like he wants to do for them. By refusing their help, it causes a rift. By allowing himself to be helped, it's providing them with a service too. If you serve people, you have truly learned to love them. So this simple act of allowing himself to be helped allows those involved to develop a greater love for each other.
Lesson #6: Taking Extreme Ownership
Matt's next lesson learned is about a term called, 'extreme ownership.' This was a new concept to him taught him when he read the book, Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win. The book talked about how extreme ownership is recognizing that it doesn't matter what happens in life, you are in charge of your own happiness. We all have external circumstances but we are the ones who control how we feel about it.
Matt read this book when he was newly married and still learning how to do some things independently. He says that sometimes he was expecting help from his wife or for her to do something that he struggled with, and if that didn't happen he was upset. He was struggling to see her perspective. Matt explained that changing his perspective and taking extreme ownership was crucial. He realized that if he wanted something done in a certain way he either needed to do it, or he needed to voice his opinion.
After learning this critical concept, he realized he had so much extra freedom and ability to be happy. He also started to realize that this concept could extend to his other relationship as work or with friends. When people at work weren't holding up their end of a deal, he would see how it would come back to him. He would ask himself what he could have done differently. If there was no one else to blame, he had control over the situation.
Matt realized that just because certain tasks take him longer, he is still the one in control. It's not anyone's fault that he has to do things differently, but he is in control of his own destiny. He isn't waiting for someone else to change something. Realizing that circumstances can come up but we have the power to change them was the most freeing thing Matt had ever experienced. He says it felt like that moment when you're in heavy traffic and all of the sudden it opens up and the entire road is yours and you can just cruise.
Matt's Bucket List
Matt's bucket list of things he wants to do has not changed at all since his accident. In fact, he says it has grown. He didn't balk at the opportunity to go scuba diving in Mexico. The scuba diving instructors explained to Matt that they often take people in wheelchairs scuba diving.
At first, Matt was nervous when they threw him off the back of the boat. He had to overcome the fear that he would aspirate sea water. But he got over the initial shock and really enjoyed the experience. He says scuba diving remains on his bucket list because he wants to have the opportunity to dive in many different locations and see dolphins and other animals.
Relationship with God
Matt says his relationship with God was a little bit of a roller coaster. He had a good relationship with God prior to his accident. He thought he understood God after coming home from his mission. But after he was paralyzed, Matt was constantly asking God if He was really there.
Matt explained the phrase that drives some people crazy was like an epiphany for him: "God gives you struggles because you can handle it." But for Matt, his struggle wasn't like that. For him, his paralysis was something that just happened. But God has been there and will be always be there to support him and help him. It's not through his own strength that he's able to handle it, but it's God and him together. When Matt has tried to handle things without God, he can't.
The second epiphany about God came one night when he was really struggling to understand was losing hope. He decided to listen to some testimonies from prophets. Matt found a YouTube clip that goes through the testimonies of Christ.
He remembers the Spirit hitting him as he thought Christ carrying the cross but he remembers thinking, "Yeah but He could walk. He doesn't know what it's like to be paralyzed." The Spirit then smacked Matt upside the head and said, "He can forgive your sins. You think He doesn't understand what it's like to be paralyzed?" And it that moment he realized that Christ truly does understand.
Matt doesn't understand how He knows, but he knows He went through every struggle. Understanding that has helped Matt have more faith relying on the Savior and allowing Him to bear this cross with him. This understanding has changed his relationship with God.
Favorite Bible Verse
Matt's favorite Bible verse is Isaiah 41:10, which reads,
"Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness."
Matt remembers studying that verse in high school and it resonating with him back then. After the accident, Matt's now wife, who was a friend, came to see him in the hospital. She would often bring quotes for a pick-me-up and one day she came in and told him that she wanted to share her favorite scripture with him. She shared Isaiah 41:10. That moment was another testimony to Matt that God truly is there.
Hope and Trusting God
Matt says that anyone going through paralysis needs to have hope. He says that life isn't worth living if you don't have hope. So hold on to whatever hope you have, whether it is that you will walk again, or that you will be able to regain independence, or that you'll just have a good life. It's possible. But it's also a balancing act.
Matt was sure he would be able to walk again, and that became all he focused on. This is when he learned to make his hope or goal more real or achievable. If you zero in on just the one thing (which is beyond your reach), it can become extremely frustrating.
Matt explained that he realized he had a whole different world of opportunity beyond learning to walk again. He was still able to do things that he's always wanted to do, like graduating from college, getting a job, and getting married. All of those things were huge stepping stones to regaining his independence and living a full life. So while Matt still has hope that he will walk again, he also recognizes those things that he is capable of right now and allows those things to be his focus.
Matt also wants everyone to understand that God is really aware of us. If we rely on Him we can overcome in much greater ways than we thought possible. Matt remembers that he received a lot of prayers or blessings that said he would be healed. So far, that hasn't happened, but he has been healed in other ways.
It's just remembering that God is aware of us and knows what we need. "Embrace and enjoy the journey."
Resources & Contact Information
Matt says there are many resources available for those with paralysis. He recommends Chad Hymas, a motivational speaker that he has heard a few times.