A Lesson of Survival and Perseverance

As a high school teacher and middle school lacrosse coach, Matthew Van Kirk has spent many years teaching students important life lesson. During their struggles, Matthew motivated his students while empowering them to reach their potential. But in the blink of an eye, he found himself unexpectedly as the student. Matt’s was learning how to regain his life, with his Penn Rehab therapists as his teachers.

On December 16, 2013, he was returning home from teaching 11th grade English at Wissahickon High School when his life changed forever.

“I realized that there was a car coming straight towards me into my lane,” says Van Kirk. “The only thing I was able to do was brace for impact.”

That was the last thing Matthew would remember for over three months.

anne and matt resizedResponders removed Matthew from the wreck using the Jaws of Life, and transported him to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. Shortly after arriving, it was discovered he had severe internal bleeding, multiple broken ribs and a broken arm. Immediately, Matthew underwent multiple lifesaving surgeries and blood transfusions. Three weeks after the accident, while recuperating, he suffered a massive heart attack resulting in cardiac arrest. The medical team performed CPR on him for over 30 minutes, reviving him but not without consequences. An MRI revealed Matthew had an anoxic brain injury, and was put into a medically-induced coma. He was intubated, placed with a trache, became ventilator dependent and was hooked up to dialysis.

Family and friends remained at Matthew’s side, while the medical team cautioned that his prognosis was bleak. To encourage activity, his loved ones continued to talk and play music in his room with the hopes of encouraging movement. At the end of February 2014, he slowly began to show improvement and was transferred to Penn Rehab to begin a comprehensive brain injury rehabilitation program.

His brain injury had left him with cognitive and memory impairments. Through rehabilitation, he worked with therapists to regain his abilities. In the early stages of recovery, Matt was unable to recall his name, what year it was, and even how old he was. However he knew something was seriously wrong.

“I said to my therapist ‘I understand this is your job, I’m a teacher and deal with upset students all the time,” Matt explained. “But I went to college. I was a teacher and have a Master’s degree. I think I’m smart, but I don’t know what happened.”

During his 3 ½ months of inpatient rehabilitation recovery, Matthew participated in daily, intensive therapy sessions to regain the independence that was taken from him. Prior to his accident, he was an avid runner and competed in three marathons.

“There were days where I didn’t think I would be able to do anything and would be on the verge of tears, but the therapists were there to keep me going. I had run three marathons, but early on in my recovery I couldn’t even walk.  After 10 steps, huff and puff, then collapse into the wheelchair behind me,” shares Matthew.  “I would be so upset with the situation, completely beside myself with my lack of ability and felt so sad. I would be on the verge of crying but my therapists were there to keep me going.”

Ann Whiting, PT, DPT, CBIS, was Matthew’s physical therapist during his stay at Penn Rehab, she also became his coach during the biggest hurdle of his life.  

resized matt“At Penn Rehab, therapists make a big effort to get to the core of who that person is and we try to let that come through no matter what. If we can let that shine through and design interventions around what the core of that person is, then we can bring them back even when they have limitations once their inner self has emerged,” says Whiting. “Coaching is being able to see the big picture when the player doesn’t always. I really believed Matt would get better. There was never a time I doubted or thought this is as good as he’s going to get.  Not once even on the days he was struggling. I never stopped pushing him when he wanted to quit because I knew he was going to get better and he needed to keep working to get there.”

In late May 2014, Matthew was discharged from Penn Rehab and continued his recovery through outpatient rehabilitation. Today, he has returned to living independently at his apartment in Philadelphia

“It’s amazing to see him today. I am really proud of him,” shares Whiting about Matthew’s progress. “I feel fortunate I got to be the one to witness his progress and witness his resilience of the human body, mind and spirit.”

Although he is still working to reclaim his abilities, Matthew recognizes that he has the support of his entire Penn Rehab care team which reminds him that finish line to recovery will become a reality.

“Penn Rehab brought me back to life. I was literally bed ridden, and here I am today. I recommended this place 100%. I couldn’t continue my recovery and progress without this place.”

Learn more about our Neurosciences inpatient program at Penn Rehab.


by Patrice Bendig