Road to resilience
After suffering a savage beating 14 years ago, Don Mathews Jr., is ready to walk the stage
Published: Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Updated: Thursday, August 2, 2012 15:08
At many commencement ceremonies, graduates are often urged to pause and take stock of their college careers. For one student, this consists of a nearly 15-year long odyssey through hospital beds and rehabilitation clinics. It started with a bloody and defenseless man lying beaten on a Huntsville road.
Halting every few moments to collect his thoughts and with frequent glances down to his Aggie Ring, Don Mathews Jr., senior agricultural leadership major, prepares to once again tell his story — his terrifying account of a September 1998 night that forever changed his life.
Don was at a friend’s house celebrating his 21st birthday party. A group from Madisonville, unknown to most partygoers, showed up and were asked to leave after a fight broke out.
As Don left the party, three men from that group brutally assaulted Don and left him for dead. Though he had never met any of them, they proceeded to punch and kick Don as he lay lifeless on the ground. The three men had chosen a random victim in retaliation and brutalized him.
Barely breathing, Don was driven by friends to Huntsville Memorial Hospital. He was then transferred to Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, while doctors gave him a 50 percent chance of surviving the trip, Don said, recalling the details told to him in the ensuing months and years.
“Of course, he has no memory of that entire year,” said his mother, Regina Mathews, who has worked tirelessly to rehabilitate her son. “We’ve gathered info from different people who were there, or pieced together information from the trials. Don’s had quite a struggle dealing with his traumatic brain injuries.”
Don’s closed-brain injury — considered the worst class of brain trauma — left him in a three-month coma. For the next year, Don is shuttled from hospital to hospital, recovery seeming further and further away.
“My first memory since the accident is of summer 1999 at a rehab facility in Galveston,” Don said. “I remember being in a wheelchair.”
The wheelchair proved to be a source of frustration for Don, a constant reminder of his injuries. The tall, athletic student loved playing sports before the attack, and being bound to his chair was just the first of many struggles Don came to face. He soon discovered he’d lost 40 pounds in the hospital, and was forced to relearn almost everything about day-to-day life. He said he’d taken for granted the simple things, such as walking, talking and remembering.
“Even after he was awake, he couldn’t talk for four months, he couldn’t focus, and you didn’t’ know if he understood you,” said Regina. “It was like having a baby, then watching him grow up all over again. All his developments came in stages. It’s never like in movies where you’re suddenly awake and ready to return to life.”
Despite these hardships, and knowing how difficult it would be to live a normal life, Don came to believe in one mission: to receive a degree from Texas A&M University. He shared his goal with numerous doctors he came in contact with, many of whom applauded his ambition but cautioned him from getting too hopeful. With injuries such as Don’s, the brain’s ability to retain information is often so damaged that memorization, a key part of many college classes, is hampered.
While working with her son, Regina warned Don that Texas A&M was a challenging school in its own right, and with his injuries it was OK to seek success elsewhere. But, Don remained adamant.
““I’ll never give up. I’m going to A&M,” Don said.
Despite doctors’ doubts, Don enrolled in adult education classes online, then signed up for classes at Sam Houston State University. In fall 2000, less than two years after his attack, Don was doing the unthinkable — he was back on track for a college degree.
By January 2005, Don transferred to Texas A&M as a psychology major to achieve the degree denied to him eight years earlier. Don said he wanted to be a counselor for disabled crime victims — he wanted to help people recover from the same issues he was forced to overcome. However, despite his ambitions, vestiges of his injuries came to haunt him. Depression, a common ailment for brain trauma survivors, took hold and sidelined his education. In 2009, he was forced to leave school for 10 months.
When he came back, his learning problems continued. Despite devoting countless hours to his studies Don can only take one class per semester. Even so, Don was unable to pass a memorization-heavy class required for his major. After being unable to resolve the issue and at-risk of failing the class, Don considered leaving Aggieland for what he feared would be the last time.
However, with the help of University staff and the Agricultural Leadership department, Don was able to secure a new major, one that ensured he could continue to study at A&M.