The only thing one can do in a moment of sheer pain and trauma is to focus.
That is what Mateo Marshall, an EMT from Allenwood, did from the moment he found himself laying on the ground following a car accident Aug. 4.
Marshall, 19, was on his way to work that morning in Selinsgrove when he began hydroplaning on Fisher Drive in Monroe Township. Marshall said he hit a post and then a tree stump. He was thrown from his vehicle several feet.
Marshall said he was told he was not wearing a seatbelt, but he recalls having it on when he left the house that day. He said it is possible he removed it at some point before impact as a reaction.
“I was laying there paralyzed,” Marshall said, with little to no feeling in his legs. Five to 10 minutes felt like an eternity until help arrived.
Marshall said he recalled the car rolling several times. Had he kept the seatbelt intact, rescuers told him, he could have been decapitated or had suffered brain damage.
“The biggest thing was I was focusing on survival,” Marshall said, “and focusing on my breathing.”
He recalled thinking, “I am too young to die.”
The DH&L ambulance crew from Selinsgrove were able to get Marshall into the ambulance.
“I was in the most, massive, severe pain,” Marshall said, as his neck felt as though there was a very large knife stuck in it.
As an EMT himself, Marshall said, he found himself instructing first responders on what to do and diagnosing himself. The responders were patient with him, and Marshall said, “they deserve a big shout out.”
When medical personnel touched his legs, he said, he knew there was a serious problem because he could only feel the grazing of feather against his body.
“My key nerves were not working.”
As Marshall was taken into the trauma bay at Geisinger Medical Center, the 19-year-old Bloomsburg University student said he just started screaming, “Please God…”
“All I had was faith,” Marshall said, “I was pleading with God not to forsake me.”
Marshall managed to focus throughout the CAT scan and MRI where the throbbing knife-like pain was unbearable in such tight quarters. He said he tried to close his eyes and go to sleep, but it was impossible to drift away.
With the spinal injury being his most serious injury, Marshall said it is a miracle he didn’t break any other bones other than a small fracture to the nose.
“There wasn’t a scratch on my whole body. That showed God’s covering and God had His hand on me,” he said.
Doctor steps in
When Marshall made it to the trauma intensive care unit, he was greeted by Dr. David A. Andreychik, Geisinger orthopedic spine surgeon.
Andreychik, who was on call that weekend, said when he was given the information about Marshall from the resident doctor, it sounded as though Marshall still had 80 percent function in the lower extremities.
“My intent on the way in there was to put him in traction,” Andreychick said, because surgery can actually worsen a situation if it is done too soon.
However, Andreychik said he changed his mind quickly upon seeing Marshall and realizing his weakness in the legs had worsened significantly since the initial call. He was also losing feeling in his hands.
Imaging showed what looked like an impalement of bone C7 to the spinal cord, Marshall said.
“I suspected he might have spinal fluid leak,” Andreychik said.
Marshall’s mother, Michelle Hughes, was praying continuously as her son was taken in for surgery.
Andreychik said he knew the family relied heavily upon their faith as they held prayer with him and Marshall before the surgery.
Family turns to prayer
“I escorted the family to the patient waiting room,” Andreychik said, “That was a hard walk,” he said because of the uncertainty of Marshall’s outcome.
Hughes’ pastor, who was also present, asked her what she needed, Marshall said.
“My mom told him, ‘I need God to take that bone out of there,’” referring to the image.
They prayed, Marshall said, for that answer and listened to the worship song “Reckless Love.”
Andreychik said he discovered through surgery the bone was not impaling the cord after all.
“There was bone sticking into the front of the spinal cord and applying pressure to the spinal cord.”
Andreychik was able to realign the spine.
Following surgery, Marshall said “the biggest teller was that I had slight movement in my toes.”
Two days after surgery he was able to move his right leg. After the fourth day, his left leg was able to move.
Marshall’s hands were still paralyzed however. He was sent to Hershey Medical Center for rehabilitation over a six-week period.
Physical therapists worked to get Marshall to sit up in bed by pushing himself up.
“It was the worst pain trying to sit up,” Marshall said, but once again, he stayed focused.
By the sixth day he was walking eight steps at the parallel bars. He had also gained full control of his right hand.
Marshall said there were struggles with keeping his blood pressure in check when standing and regaining bowel and bladder control, but both issues were conquered in a shorter amount of time than expected.
“The biggest thing in all of this was my faith in God. Having faith as small as mustard seed…that is really all you need. Your attitude affects your actions, and your actions affect your outcome,” he said.
He was able to walk freely but slowly out of the rehab center after six weeks. When he saw Andreychik in a follow up appointment, the surgeon asked Marshall if he could walk.
Marshall answered with certainty that he could.
And he did.
After taking a semester off to recover, Marshall will return to Bloomsburg University a junior studying pre-med, and he said he believes as a surgeon one day he will understand his patients’ pain more than anyone else.
Andreychik said he has no doubt Marshall will be successful from here onward.
“He’s a very focused kid,” Andreychik said, “Despite the seriousness of the injury what struck me with him was that the questions he asked were extremely appropriate. He wanted to know everything about his injury. He wanted to see the X-rays. He knows exactly what is going on.”