Remembering Michael: Soldier strengthened by son's life, legacy
September 11, 2013
FORT LEE, Va. (Sept. 12, 2013) -- One can make the argument that only a long-lived life yields purpose and substance. Spc. Janice Matthews would beg to differ.
The Army Logistics University-assigned Soldier is a grieving parent; a mother who lost her 18-month-old son, Michael D. Matthews, in June due to complications from renal disease.
Despite gloomy prognoses for survival and a normal life, multiple visits to hospitals, bouts with stroke-causing high blood pressure and the long list of medications she managed, she said his resilience was otherworldly; a gift that strengthened her then and continues to do so today.
"In 18 months I learned so much from a sweet, lovable and innocent person," she said recently. "I mean, he had this fight in him that I've never seen in an adult. My son saved my life."
Matthews would need her son's strength.
The 30-year-old offers a complicated story. She grew up in foster homes in and around Elizabeth City, N.C., and was traumatized by her experiences before and after she was removed from her parents.
"It wasn't the best childhood," she said.
When she was 16, a high school Reserve Officer Training Corps administrator and his wife took an interest in and later adopted her. Married at 18, Matthews gave birth to two boys and became a preschool teacher. She joined the Army in 2007, served a tour in Iraq and was temporarily retired due to medical issues.
Michael was born in November 2011. Matthews was called back to active duty last year and was assigned to ALU's Staff and Faculty Company, 71st Transportation Battalion. First Sgt. Penny R. Bell said her first impression of Matthews dramatically changed once she learned of her tribulation.
"When I'm tired, I think about her," she said. "She gives me strength. I don't get to be tired when I think about her and her circumstances. And I get to motivate the other Soldiers in this company by reminding them of what she's been through."
Signs of trouble came midway through Matthews' pregnancy with Michael. He was born with one kidney, and a sonogram later revealed that it was enlarged to the extent it "was absorbing all of the fluids" in her gestational sac. One perinatologist she saw at the time said she could save herself the trouble of child birth.
"She suggested that I terminate the pregnancy," recalled Matthews, noting Michael's lone kidney wasn't functioning properly. The specialist perhaps didn't anticipate the level of reprimand she would receive in response.
"I told her I wasn't terminating anything," she said, mocking her defiance at the time. "My son is kicking and breathing, and he's doing all the normal things (he should be doing). I've had a normal pregnancy up until today. Why would I terminate the pregnancy?"
Matthews' resistance didn't rest solely on motherly emotion. She researched his condition, found doctors and conferred with them to determine a course of treatment called imunoinfusion -- eight of them that eventually "put the fluid back into the baby's sac," said Matthews. The risks were pre-term labor or infection. "I risked my life for my son as any loving mother would do," she said.
Michael came into the world at seven and a half months, weighing two pounds. Various doctors and specialists had opined Michael's chances for survival were slim to none, said Matthews, but she was reassured he could survive. She had met several mothers with children born under similar circumstances who had gone on to live healthy lives -- once they received a kidney transplant.
"This was a huge deal," said Matthews. "I had taken care of my baby since day one. Just him being alive showed me that he was a fighter, so I had to fight for him."
The kidney transplant would be the ultimate goal, said Matthews, but she had literally layers of other obstacles before her. First, she was dealing with a domestic situation so painful, Bell had to intervene. Secondly, Michael had many medical problems -- anemia, bone disease, hypothyroidism and hypertension -- to name a few and needed dialysis four times a week. Thirdly, his care would be extensive. His stay in the hospital was six months after birth, and when he was released, Michael had to be watched nearly 24/7.
Matthews, a professed woman of faith, wasn't deterred by what she faced. She found solace in Michael's comical laugh and a smile she said would light the darkest corners of any room. Most of all, she was moved by his heart -- a hardened determination that contradicted his cuddly package and something bigger than anything she knew.
"Every time they threw something at him, he proved them wrong," she said. "Everything they said he wouldn't do, he did it. They said he wouldn't drink milk from a bottle so I worked with him, and he drank from a bottle. They said he wouldn't eat by mouth -- I fed him every day, and he ate by mouth. He was doing everything they said he wouldn't do."
Matthews would be her baby's match for a kidney transplant. Most of the preliminary work had been done by the spring. There were a few complications, but they were resolved. Things looked well until she was returning from a trip to visit her biological mother in Norfolk. Michael, sitting in his car seat, was being himself -- smiling, laughing, bobbing his head to music and innocently oblivious to his surroundings. When she reached Hampton, the child became quiet. Matthews thought he was asleep. Upon further examination, she discovered he had a nosebleed. The next moments were frantic. Michael was rushed to the hospital.
"I remember I went in the room and they were still working on him," said Matthews. "I remember praying, and I remember something coming over me. The Lord was letting me know that this is going to be it. It was a feeling like no other. It was like an angel had appeared. It was so peaceful. It was like, 'you did all you could, momma.'"
Michael, had he lived and gained weight, was due to receive his mother's kidney this month.
Michael died June 2. Matthews said she is undergoing counseling for her grief. She said her unit, the Children's Hospital of Richmond and others have been instrumental in helping her deal with the loss.
On a positive note, Matthews said she doesn't feel guilty or inclined to fuss about Michael's seemingly brief existence. She accepts his life and death as something that served a specific purpose.
"I know that I did everything I could do as a mother," she said. "I was in shock (because his death was sudden), but I'm also at peace; peace because he had 18 months when some of those doctors didn't give him a day or an hour, so as his mother, I'm appreciative. The Lord chose me to be his mother, and he chose me for a reason."
Matthews also said her son's strength and resilience has a place within her. Her domestic situation has been resolved; she is attending college; and is enthusiastically looking to the future -- mostly because of 18 months of the past and a toddler she sometimes called "Chum Chum."
"If he could go through everything that he endured, that just gives me more of a drive and push to keep on going everyday now," she said. "Anytime I had a bad day and have thoughts that I can't do this, I think of my son -- 'yes, I can.' He did it and he was 18 months. I'm 30 years old, I can do it too."
Matthews has established the Michael D. Matthews Foundation to support military families who might face some of the same hurdles she did in finding treatment options and other support. Those who want to make donations in Michael's name can do so through the Children's Hospital Foundation website at http://chfrichmond.org/index.php/why-give/families-with-heart.
Matthews is also encouraging participation in the Children's Hospital Foundation Four-Mile Walk/Run set for Sept. 21 in north Richmond. Visit www.chfrace.org for race registration and other details.