Music has always played a huge part in 16-year-old Matthew Schulte’s life. The junior at Bishop O'Gorman High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, excels at his schoolwork while also juggling band, choir and theatre, so it’s no surprise music has been vital in his recovery from a traumatic brain injury.
Matthew and his mom were involved in a head-on collision in early November. While his mom sustained minimal injuries, Matthew sustained a few broken ribs, a bruised lung, injuries to his kidney and spleen and significant brain trauma. He spent nearly a month at Sanford Medical Center, in South Dakota, before coming to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals’ pediatric unit in a minimally conscious state, unable to walk or talk. His care was overseen by Dr. Sharon Stoolman, Madonna’s Pediatric Medical Director, and her team of Children’s Hospital and Medical Center physicians, who rounded with Matthew daily, helping him to maximize his time at Madonna.
“Because of my brain injury, I also lost the use of my left arm and left leg,” Matthew said. “My main focus was getting strong enough to where I can walk on my own and use my hand again.”
Bailey Leversee, PT, DPT, a Madonna physical therapist, remembers when she first met Matthew, he was struggling to talk and wasn’t able to follow commands. She relied on his parents to explain Matthew’s likes and dislikes, personality and things that would motivate him in therapy while he was unable to communicate for himself.
Matthew doesn’t remember his first few days at Madonna, but fittingly, one of the first things he remembers is attending Mass at Madonna with his parents and singing along to hymns. He also tried to stand up from his wheelchair to worship, not realizing the extent of his injuries.
“It was definitely a shock to both of us, because he had been nonverbal and unable to move on his own, and the next thing we knew, he was trying to stand and sing along,” Nancy Schulte, Matthew’s mom, said. “It was encouraging though because we knew Matthew was still Matthew.” From there, Matthew’s progress steadily continued. His personality shone through as he pushed himself in therapy. Matthew set a goal to be strong enough to walk independently as well as return to the stage, as he has had a National Honor Choir performance on his calendar for months.
“We will be performing in Cincinnati, Ohio, on February 22 through the 25,” Matthew said. “There will be about 800 singers there, so it’s going to be super powerful. We’re doing seven songs, and I’ve had to learn those in between therapy.”
Knowing Matthew’s interests, Leversee created a customized treatment plan to practice the skills that would help him return to his life roles.
“The biggest things he was involved in were marching band and choir, where they do a lot of standing, standing with feet together, heel-toe walks, and just getting back to daily school activities as well,” Leversee said. “We practiced walking with a weighted backpack. We practiced head turns with walking so he could get back to marching band. We practiced walking with a really narrow base of support, so we really incorporated all those things that he needed to do to get back to his daily life. I think that he appreciated that and it made therapy a little more fun too.”
Leversee incorporated specialized technology like the FES functional electrical stimulation bicycle to wake up Matthew’s arm muscles and the LiteGait gait trainer to improve his walking balance. Through these interventions and hours of daily therapy, Matthew has been able to go from unable to stand on his own to walking several hundred feet using only a cane to steady himself.
Matthew also hasn’t missed a beat in the classroom. He’s been hard at work on his schoolwork, utilizing Madonna’s Therapeutic Learning Center, and attending his usual singing lessons with his teacher through Zoom. Fittingly, with the help of Denise Shearer, Madonna’s TLC teacher, Matthew wrote an English paper about the power of music in brain injury recovery. When he’s not in therapy, he’s been playing the keyboard to further improve dexterity in his hands and practicing his sheet music for National Honor Choir. He even got a surprise visit from some friends back home.
“I had seventeen friends come down from my hometown because they had the day off for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day,” Matthew said. “It was just awesome seeing all of their faces and just be able to joke around with them and get a break from therapy.”
Before returning home to Sioux Falls, Matthew received a Madonna Spirit Award for his positive attitude and sense of humor during therapy. He celebrated with his care team and promised to keep in touch as he continues his therapy on an outpatient basis and returns to his busy social life.