RACINE - Dan DeMatthew has completed about 10 triathlons. Until he was 48, he ran five miles every day on his lunch hour.
On Sunday DeMatthew, now 52, mentioned his two latest achievements: He can now lift a Q-tip to his left ear and blow his nose unaided. The one-time runner now moves via electric wheelchair.
DeMatthew's life changed forever last Aug. 10. Then the Racine Police Department's support services manager, he had a little free time and decided to ride his bike over to mow his mother's lawn.
DeMatthew removed his T-shirt and wrapped it around his handlebars. Then, pedaling east on State Street, "I heard a ‘pop,' " he said. "I went to grab the brake, and the next thing I knew, I was on the ground."
He later learned that his shirt had slipped between the brake and tire, throwing DeMatthew head-first onto the street. He landed on his forehead and the force of his body driving downward crushed the third and fourth vertebrae in his neck.
People immediately began to stop and respond, including a nurse and an orthopedic surgeon. Meanwhile, DeMatthew said, "I was feeling a little numb."
Expert medical care
His wife, Amy, effusively praised the response Dan got at Wheaton
Franciscan-All Saints hospital. After numerous tests, "They immediately started steroids to reduce the swelling" around the spinal cord.
"As the swelling is reduced, there's less pressure and less damage," Dan added.
"So they were able to do surgery the next day," at Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa, Amy said. Twenty-four hours after the accident, DeMatthew went in for eight hours of surgery, during which doctors rebuilt the two vertebrae.
DeMatthew had suffered incomplete spinal cord injury and become a quadriplegic. However, because the cord was not severed, some recovery was possible.
But at first, he could barely move his left hand, and his right side was dead to his intentions. DeMatthew could not reach or press a button to call a nurse; he had to use a straw in his mouth.
It was two months before his rehab team at Froedtert sent him home despite his trepidation that he wasn't ready. That team included a psychologist who, Amy said, kept looking for signs of depression in Dan.
From the start, he recalled, "I said, ‘I'm fine, everything's going good.' To this day I have still never asked, why me? She thought I was in denial."
Friends, family respond
DeMatthew's positive attitude, and a passel of supportive friends and family members, have served him well in a slow struggle to reclaim bits of normalcy. The Froedtert staff said they had never seen a response such as Dan was given there, Amy said.
During his two months there, supporters transformed the DeMatthews home into a handicapped-friendly one, from the new front wheelchair ramp, renovated bathroom and garage to removing all carpeting.
"I had to tell Amy quite a few times not to open her mouth," Dan said, "because every time she did, something got done, and I was feeling guilty."
Upon discharge, Amy said, "He was still functionally dependent on people for everything."
For example, Dan said, "I could feed myself, but I couldn't get my own food."
His ordeal goes far beyond a fight for mobility. It has brought great pain - bad muscle spasms, two bulging discs, a torn-up shoulder and sleep apnea.
But now he can walk a little - slowly and very carefully, with a walker. More small victories will come.
The DeMatthews say the tragedy has brought incredible love and help from friends and family. It's clear those helpers wanted to show what they thought of Dan.
"Being his wife for 28 years, I didn't even know half of the stories," Amy said, tears welling up in her eyes. "He goes out of his way to do something kind for so many people without wanting anything back."
DeMatthew said his goals are simple.
"A lot of things I would like to do are the things other people have to do for me now."
To read more about DeMatthew's story, written by son Jamie and wife Amy, visit