By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
It seemed like a dream sequence to Matt Fumo on that summer day near the Longport bridge. Matt was floating in the water, seemingly weightless — in a sense, an out-of-body experience. The 19-year-old recent Ocean City High School graduate quickly realized, however, that this was anything but a dream. It was a real-life nightmare.
Matt was doing what kids in this and many other areas of the country have done for generations — having fun with buddies in the water and diving off bridge embankments. It seemed like any other normal, fun-filled summer day at the shore, until that one fateful dive. Matt dove in and hit his head awkwardly on a sand bar, and broke his neck. At first, his friends thought he was just messing with them when they saw him floating in the water, but they quickly realized something was wrong and sprung into action, calling 9-1-1 as well as Matt’s mom, Gail.
“It definitely was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced. I don’t even know the words for it. I was numb. It’s very devastating. It was such a tragic moment going over (to the hospital). I wasn’t far from the area, and one of the boys called me and told me that Matt had been in an accident and that I needed to come. I left right away and got down to the beach just as he was getting into the ambulance. I was panicking. When he got to the hospital, a police officer called and told me he was conscious, but it was a very severe injury,” Gail said. “He had all the symptoms that he would be paralyzed from the neck down. We knew right when they put him in the ambulance it was bad. When we got to the medical center they just kind of ran me into a room. I don’t really remember, it was such a slow motion, scary moment. I was definitely broken at that moment.”
“We were under the bridge, just diving off of it. My friend came over on a jet ski and everybody was racing to get over there. I dove in and hit my head on a sand bar. My whole body — it felt like I was still in the dive position, but my whole body was limp. I was awake the whole time. It was awful. It was like a microphone under the water amplifying my thoughts. I knew right away (I broke my neck). It was the craziest feeling because my body was in shock, I guess. All my friends thought I was kidding because I could hear them through the water. Harry Pfeifle and Parker Gimbel saved me, they turned me over and brought me up to land,” Matt said. “They held my neck steady until the ambulance got there. I was just screaming, and all my friends were in complete shock. My mom was there on the beach before I got into the ambulance and I remember talking to her. Tony Wilson called her. Then I was in the hospital (in Atlantic City) for five days, but I don’t really remember any of that. I had people in there all the time, so that helped, but when I was alone it was really hard.”
Matt, who had an outstanding senior baseball season at Ocean City High last spring and was a Press of Atlantic City first-team all-star selection — and who was planning to play college baseball at Cumberland County this fall — was originally classified as having a complete spinal cord injury, which would have left him as a quadriplegic for life.
“I had what they call a complete ASIA (American Spinal Injury Association) A, and complete means you usually can’t move anything for the rest of your life. They told me I could never walk again and I would be on a breathing tube for six months. But then, on the third day, they said it was incomplete,” he said.
The injury happened on July 20, and the next few weeks were a trying time for the Fumo family, which has had a rough go of it the past few years with Matt’s father, Frank, suffering through some significant health issues.
“They did have to do surgery, so that first night and even into the next day, a surgeon came in and told us his spinal cord wasn’t severed, but it was dislodged. So they basically had to put him back together. At that point it was a severe thing. They did all kinds of tests and there were no signals going through past the point of his shoulder. They did the surgery and were able to realign him, so they were pleased about that, but it was so severely bruised and damaged that there was a lot to deal with,” Gail said. “They kept doing tests and were disappointed to find out nothing was going through. The doctors came out and told us he had a long road ahead of him. The talking the next few days was horrific. Doctors were telling us how we might have to prepare for a new quadriplegic life. I was a mess at that point. They told us he could be like this for a year, or for the rest of his life. All we could do was sit around with family, hold hands and say a prayer. Basically, it stayed like that for awhile.”
“The hardest days in the whole thing were within 48 to 72 hours after it happened. We had thoughts that he might not even make it. Then, after he got the ventilator out, we didn’t know if he was every going to walk again or move anything below his neck. So, that was definitely the hardest time. Once he started getting feeling in his limbs back, that’s when we started to have some real hope. And look at him now, he’s doing box jumps and running,” said Blake Gorski, a good friend and baseball teammate of Matt’s at Ocean City. “Him having me, Colton Ulmer, the rest of the guys and his girlfriend there, that really helped him out. It was hard for him. It’s a very trying thing, but he pushed through it. We helped him out, gave him some words of wisdom and helped him any way we could. We told him he was going to be OK, he was going to walk again. He just powered through it, and look where he is now. He definitely leaned on his friends and we tried to help him out whenever we could.”
Where he is now is nothing short of a medical miracle. Matt spent about a week and a half in Atlantic City before being transferred to Magee Rehabilitation in Philadelphia, one of the leading specialty rehab centers in the area. There, he began to walk again with the help of staff members and a harness.
“That first week at Magee got me so much better, just doing activities. Jumping and running, I have to totally learn that again. It’s weird, because my brain remembers how to do those things, but my body just can’t. It was about a month after starting at Magee before I could actually walk on my own without anybody helping me,” Matt said. “My sister, Julia, recently said it’s crazy seeing me walk around now because she never thought that would be possible. One of my first thoughts was I would never walk again, but about a week after the injury one of the surgeons said he saw a little bit of movement in my leg, and that’s when I knew I could at least get a little bit better. But, from there it just took off. The rehab is really hard on your body though. I go to Philly twice a week and Mt. Laurel twice a week.”
“He’s doing an amazing job, really. He’s worked hard and has been through a lot. He’s been a trooper,” Gail said. “His progress went really fast, like within days. It was amazing. Each thing he started to heal from — he would get some feeling in his legs — it would be within a few days that feeling would take over. Sometimes he wouldn’t see any gains, but he started to heal fast. The first month he couldn’t walk at all or get up on his own, and he couldn’t feed himself, but at the rehab places they had a lot of equipment and they would get him up in a harness. He was starting to move and walk on his own right before we came home from the outpatient.”
Even though he has had amazing success so far, Gail said it has been extremely difficult for Matt because he basically has to re-train his brain to do even the simplest of tasks, such as walking, or reaching out for a glass of water. Matt said his brain knows what it’s supposed to do, but it’s not always easy to relay the information to his limbs. It’s akin to a phone call with bad reception, where the voice on the other end keeps going in and out.
“He would have things he wanted to do, but it was hard for him to get his brain to do what he wanted to do. He said he really wanted to learn to jump. He had the physical ability, but he was like, ‘I see people jump on TV, but I can’t think in my mind how to make my body do that.’ So, that was one of the goals, he used to tell his therapist he wanted to learn how to jump,” said Gail. “When he first started standing up, he could do squats, but the actual motion of walking was very difficult. To go take that step changes everything, because now your brain has to say right foot, heel-to-toe, bend your knee, straighten your knee. He has to do that with every step while also paying attention to his other leg to say, ‘don’t bend that one.’ The physical might come back, but then he has to get his brain to do it. Every time he stood up, he said he felt like he wanted to run, but that he didn’t know how to run. So it’s strange how the mind works. As much as he has gained, there are still holes to fill everywhere that still need to be put together.”
Still, the fact that he is up and walking around, and even attempting to run and do box jumps, is something that has shocked Matt’s family and friends. They had prepared themselves for the fact that Matt might be paralyzed for life.
“He’s like a whole different person already. It’s crazy how he’s done this so fast. I knew he had it in him, but I didn’t expect it to happen this fast. It’s a surprise, but I knew all along he could do it,” Gorski said. “No one saw this coming. No one saw him making anything close to a full recovery. You see a kid with a good head on his shoulders who is going to play college baseball, then this happens. It’s terrible to see and it really hits home, but then you see him doing this, and now there’s even hope that maybe he will be able to play baseball again and do all the things he was doing if this had never happened. I’m very happy to hear how successful his recovery process is.”
“Even a few weeks ago, if you saw me walk I would look like Frankenstein, but it’s starting to get a lot smoother. I did a 12-inch box jump, and that was difficult because I had to re-teach myself to do that,” Matt said. “My goal is to play ACBL this summer. That’s a really high goal, but it’s getting more and more realistic. It’s still going to be tough, though. It’s hard to know if I’ll ever be able to get back (to the diamond). The doctors tell me to push myself and do as much as possible. About 90 percent of it is mental. You don’t know if you’re going to fall down, and that’s always a fear in the back of my head. Now that I’m getting it, though, it’s getting back to normal.”
Through the struggles, Matt said he has grown a lot closer to his parents, sister Julia, 16, and brother Zach, 22. They’ve all made a lot of sacrifices to help him get better, which has given him a new perspective on a lot of things.
“At least twice a week I doubt myself, but you just have to fight through it and I have to realize how well I’m doing compared to where I was. Being with my friends helps, and seeing my videos,” he said. “I look at everything differently now. I think all the time about why this happened to me. But, you just have to realize it happened. It’s hard to be positive sometimes, but I try so hard to do it. I like to think I can make a full recovery. I’ve gotten a lot closer to my parents, especially with everything my dad went through. He talks a lot to me about staying positive. He’s been a real big help, especially mentally. I look at life differently now and see all the good in life.”
Gorski said it’s great that the Fumo family has something to celebrate this holiday season, considering all they have been through the past couple of years.
“His dad had some health problems that he was struggling with and with this happening, it’s just the worst time for it to happen. It’s terrible for it to happen to anybody, but especially for that family with everything they’ve been struggling with,” Gorski said. “I’m happy they have a sigh of relief that he’s going to be OK and is making such great progress.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays