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Married Medics Navigate Long Road to Recovery Together

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

By Malini Wilkes 

After the bomb blast that tore off his legs, injured his spinal cord and damaged his organs; after the two massive strokes that affected his memory, movement and speech; after six weeks in a coma, three months in the hospital and nearly two years in therapy, Army Sgt. Ed Matayka still has a long recovery ahead. 

And his wife, Sgt. Karen Matayka, is still standing by his side, encouraging, nagging and pushing him to heal.

The Mataykas are both medics in the Vermont Army National Guard.  Both deployed to Afghanistan in 2010.  On July 2, Ed was on patrol near Bagram when a roadside bomb hit his vehicle, killing the driver and injuring four others.  Ed was bleeding and barely conscious, yet somehow yelled through a broken jaw, directing fellow soldiers to put tourniquets on his legs.

Back at the base, doctors told Karen he wouldn’t survive another 24 hours.  She refused to believe them.

“I just loved him and I knew that he was still in there,” she said.

The next few days passed quickly as the Army rushed the couple from Afghanistan to Germany then to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

“They were trying to get him there as fast as possible so that his family could say goodbye to him before he died,” Karen recalled.

Though Ed was in a coma for weeks, he responded to Karen’s questions by squeezing her hand.  When he finally woke up, he was disoriented.  He thought it was ten years earlier when he attended nursing school at the same hospital.

“It took probably a good seven months to actually gain some semblance of normalcy,” he said.

The Mataykas’ “new normal” is a drastic change from their old lives.  Although the Vermont National Guard has kept them both on active duty, the couple had to move to San Antonio, where Ed, now 34, is an outpatient at the Army’s Center for the Intrepid.  Karen, 32, is his full-time caregiver.

“In the beginning, Karen couldn’t let me out of her sight because I’d get lost or I’d get confused or not show up,” Ed said.  “Now I’m at the point she doesn’t have to worry about me as much.”

Karen still helps her husband get out of bed every day and get showered and dressed for his therapy appointments.  She’s also his advocate—fighting the bureaucracy for his medication, therapy, even his prosthetics.

Aside from physical changes, she’s adjusting to differences in Ed’s personality.  His brain injury affected how he communicates both verbally and non-verbally.

“He’ll try to crack a joke and I’ll have to be looking at him to know if he’s joking or not,” Karen said.

The couple will share their experiences Wednesday at the third annual USO Caregivers Conference in San Antonio, where caregivers for wounded, ill and injured troops can meet each other and attend workshops on communication, stress management, parenting, employment and VA benefits.

“The reason why things worked for us is because I refused to allow his injury to change our relationship,” Karen said.

From the start, she’s pushed Ed toward more independence and tried hard to keep pity out of their relationship.

“She made it clear if I wanted to get up and walk again it was going to be my doing, not anyone else’s,” Ed said.

Though he uses a wheelchair now, both Ed and Karen firmly believe he’ll walk again.  Someday they hope to return to New England and raise a family, but for now, they’re both focused on Ed’s recovery.

“We have no ‘end date’ as of yet with his therapy,” Karen said. 

Ed added: “We’ll get somewhere when I’m ready.”

* * *

Photo Caption:  Ed and Karen Matayka in January 2011.  (Photo courtesy of Karen Matayka)  

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