Matt Koppen spends every possible second he can outdoors. The 29-year-old from Whittemore, Iowa, loves to hunt and fish all year long. He even volunteers with Paralyzed Veterans of America to take veterans fishing every Memorial Day weekend.
“We go out for the day, take them around fishing, and most of them, that’s their only trip of the year,” Koppen said. “I’ve never had it where the veteran has not caught fish, so that’s a good thing.”
In October 2021, Koppen experienced firsthand what paralyzed veterans go through. He had a stroke caused by a previously undetected congenital heart defect. As a result, Matt needed a heart transplant, and he went to Nebraska Medicine in Omaha to receive it. While there, he had another stroke—this one in his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the hips down. Matt spent 59 days at the hospital recovering, and then came to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals for seven weeks of intense therapy.
“I lost 55 pounds in the hospital, so I have a lot to rebuild,” Matt said. “Being here, I’ve definitely gained weight and muscle back big time. When I got here, I’d just be flopping around almost, kept leaning over and whatnot. Now, I can sit up straight and can reach the floor; do just about anything.”
The hardest part for Matt was going through his therapy during seasons he would normally be hunting and fishing.
“I missed out on a lot this year, obviously, and I didn’t know it would bother me that much,” Matt said. “I’m going to do whatever I can to get back at it.”
When he first arrived at Madonna, the focus was slowly building up Matt’s arm and core muscles while increasing sitting and standing tolerance. Madonna Physical Therapist Kassi Pichler had him utilize a standing frame to support his weight as he worked his upper body. As he got stronger, Pichler teamed up with Jennifer Luethje, a Madonna seating and positioning specialist, to teach Matt how to transfer from his bed to his wheelchair independently, then to navigate the world in his chair.
“When folks come in here and have lost their primary mode of mobility, which is walking, we want them to be independent so they don’t always have to depend on somebody else to be around for them to be able to be mobile,” Luethje said.
Along the way, Matt said his care team became like friends or family.
“Every day with them was just fun, and you just joke a little bit, and they still try to kick your butt,” Matt joked. “They make you sore, but you want to do whatever they ask [of] you. They’re great, and they know what they’re doing.”
Over the first few weeks of therapy, Matt’s love of the outdoors came through, and he showed off his fishing knowledge by crafting his own fishing lures. Madonna staff recognize the importance of returning to favorite hobbies and activities, so Luethje showed Matt a variety of wheelchairs and adaptations that would make it possible for him to return to hunting and fishing.
When fitting someone for a wheelchair, Luethje considers several factors, including how long a patient will need the chair, what their home setting is like, and if caregivers will be able to transport the chair.
“If they’re using it for the long run or even for several months or more, it’s their legs and it’s an extension of them so they need to be comfortable, and it needs to be well-fitting,” Luethje said.
Matt tested out a power wheelchair with a sit-to-stand function, a manual wheelchair with a SmartDrive wheel attached that converts it to a power wheelchair, and his personal favorite, the Action TrackChair. The Action Trackchair has treads designed to go off the beaten path, where traditional wheelchairs cannot, unlocking new possibilities for Matt and other outdoorsmen. Madonna’s Action TrackChair was made possible through donations raised at the annual Miracle Night Gala in 2021, and Matt was one of the first to test it out.
“If I plan to go fishing or hunting again, the Trackchair is something that would be pretty much a necessity,” Matt said. “I was already, that night, on the computer looking them up, so it was fun.”
Crafting a plan of care to best suit each patient’s lifestyle, Matt’s care team also showed him an adaptive hand-pedaled bicycle during physical therapy and went with him on a special patient outing to Scheel’s in occupational therapy to ensure he felt comfortable maneuvering the hunting and fishing aisles in his chair.
“The ultimate goal for everyone is to return to independence, even if it looks different than before they came to Madonna,” Luethje said.
Having gotten to try out different sets of wheels in different situations, Matt feels confident he can maintain his independence while navigating his new normal.
“I can do just about anything in this chair, and it’s just huge progress,” Matt said.