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Community rallies around paralyzed teen

Greta Pollett of Rehab Without Walls, left, works with Matthew Sheppard through physical therapy. - Kirk Boxleitner
Greta Pollett of Rehab Without Walls, left, works with Matthew Sheppard through physical therapy.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

ARLINGTON — Matthew Sheppard was 12 years old and had only four more days left in the school year, but that night, he was clinically dead for four minutes.

On June 15 of this year, Matthew was sent to the office after telling his teacher that he was experiencing head pain, which led to a 911 call when his hand went numb. Within half an hour, by the time he reached Cascade Valley Hospital, he was paralyzed from the neck down. While being transported to Harborview Medical Center for an MRI, he stopped breathing, and after his arrival, he died for four minutes at midnight.

“It was quite the ride,” said Matthew’s mom, Tansy Sheppard, who was given a tentative diagnosis of transverse myelitis and Guillain–Barré syndrome as the possible causes of her son’s condition.

“Those do the same things as a stroke,” said Ron Sheppard, Tansy’s husband and Matthew’s dad. “They still don’t know for sure what it was, though.”

While the causes of Matthew’s condition remain a mystery, its consequences on his life have been starkly clear. After months of tests at both Harborview and Seattle Children’s Hospital, Matthew received a tracheal tube, and Ron and Tansy were told that their son would never walk, move or breathe on his own again.

“After that, though, he was able to shake his head,” Tansy Sheppard said, noting that Matthew had even started speaking on the week of Nov. 2, albeit at a whisper-quiet volume. By Nov. 9, his speech was more audible, as he recognized and greeted visitors by smiling and identifying them by name. “I believe he’s getting better.”

While the Sheppards have faced challenges in adjusting to their new life, with Matthew in a fully-automated wheelchair, they’ve been struck by the generosity of the surrounding community.

“We got a handicapped van with a wheelchair lift from the Winthrop KOA,” Ron Sheppard said. “They gave it to us for a song and a dance. The cheapest listing we saw for something similar was $26,000. We were having to call 911 to get an ambulance to take him to his doctor’s appointments before. I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t want to involve anybody else in my problems, but it’s weird how word-of-mouth has spread and people have reached out to help us with what we need.”

A car wash at the Co-Op Supply in Arlington in July raised $1,000 for the Sheppard family, and mutual friends put Ron Sheppard in touch with Ron Wright, who had designed a winch-and-hoist system for getting his own paralyzed mother in and out of bed.

“What he designed cost about $250,” Ron Sheppard said. “The prices I saw for anything like that went from $7,000 up.”

While the Sheppards are grateful to their neighbors in Arlington and beyond for their support, the family is still facing significant obstacles, even as Matthew continues to show improvement during his physical therapy sessions with Rehab Without Walls.

“Our goal is to get a new bed for him,” Tansy Sheppard said. “He cries every night because the bed he has now hurts him so much. We were thankful to get one that let him sit up, and we have a nurse at night who rolls him when he’s in bed, but still, we’d like him to have that.”

To that end, the Arlington Heights Improvement Center at 12221 228th St. NE, next to the Oso Fire Hall, will serve as the site for a spaghetti feed fundraiser for Matthew Sheppard on Saturday, Nov. 17, from 3:30-6:30 p.m. The Sheppards ask that those who plan on attending purchase their tickets online at www.matthewsheppard.org, where they can also donate to the family online.

“We’ve lived in Arlington since 1975 and at our current home since 1979, and while a lot of new people have moved in, it’s stayed a small-town community,” Ron Sheppard said. “We’ve had so much help that we haven’t even asked for. The whole community has stepped up.”

“I just want to thank everybody,” Tansy Sheppard said. “God bless them all.”

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