The call came the other night. A family member wanting to let me know that Dave Matheny had passed away earlier that morning, surrounded by the family who loved him so well.
Dave Matheny was a farmer from out Heppner way. An avid outdoorsman, Matheny was scouting for elk in Oregon’s Morrow County on Sept. 9, 2001, when the three-year-old colt he was on grew skittish on a the steep part of an old miner’s trail. Dave pulled back on the reins, hollered “Whoa, Buddy!” just moments before the green horse rared back and dumped Dave to the ground.
Sally Bronson, Dave’s sister, and her husband Mark made up the rest of the scouting party. Climbing off their horses, Sally went to her brother. His head was pointed downhill, over a small pine pole. Dave was not moving, not breathing.
At first Sally and Mark thought Dave had just gotten the wind knocked out of him. They checked him for injuries. A speck of blood dribbled out of Dave’s right ear. The top of his head was skinned up. And there was a nasty bruise on the back of his head.
But it was Dave’s blue eyes that bothered Sally most. They were filled with fear. Dave still wasn’t breathing. Sally fished around inside her brother’s mouth for the wad of snooze. She and Mark rolled Dave on his side, patted his back.
Dave didn’t gasp or cough. The two spun Dave around so that his head was pointed uphill. Sally put her ear to Dave’s chest, listened for a heartbeat. But the only thing she could hear was her own heart’s rapid rhythms.
Dave’s eyes came into focus. He tried to speak but no sound came. Instinctively, Sally knew what Dave was trying to say: I can’t breathe.
Sally had taken CPR classes, years prior. Mark had not. “You have to breath for him,” Mark told his wife.
She put her mouth over her brother’s.
She watched his chest rise. She put her ear to her brother’s chest. She could hear a heartbeat. It was faint but she could hear it.
Mark got the cell phone from the saddle-bag, but there was no signal. He would have to ride to another clearing to search for a signal. Off he went, leaving Sally breathing for her brother. He rode, and rode in search of a signal that would hold. It took nine attempts before he finally was able to reach 9-11’s dispatch.
“I wasn’t sure I could get a connection anywhere,” Mark said later. “I felt helpless.”
Two hours. That’s how long Sally did her brother’s breathing for him before she heard the whirring of the rescue helicopter.
Dave’s neck was broken. He spent three weeks in the critical care unit of a Bend, Ore. hospital. He’d ruptured his gall bladder, too, but nobody noticed that until a life-threatening infection set in. There were many other set-backs physically, as there would continue to be over the ensuing years.
Dave made it out of those mountains alive because of his sister Sally and her husband Mark. Sally’s CPR-skills saved Dave’s life. Eventually, Dave would return to the his ranch, but he never again returned to the life he’d had.
Remember Christopher Reeve? Dave’s injuries were of a similar nature. Paralyzed from the neck down, Dave had to have a machine do all his breathing for him. Vent patients like Dave don’t usually get to return to their homes. They end up in skilled facilities in major metropolitan areas.
No one who knew Dave Matheny, however, could imagine him spending out his days in an urban environment. Portland is 200 miles away. Seattle even further. Dave and Patty had one son in high school, still, and their eldest was in college at Oregon State. There was a farm to manage.
But at the time, there wasn’t a skilled nursing facility nearby that could handle the kind of injuries Dave had sustained. He would need 24-hour care and all the technological whistles-and-bells that allowed for his daily care and for a quality of life.
That’s where the community rallied. An auction was held in Hermiston. People from across these sagebrush fields and golden mountains of grain donated big ticket items. Then they came out and bid top dollars on each other’s donations. I can’t remember the exact total but that one auction raised somewhere around $100,000.
Neighbors went out to Dave’s ranch and built an addition onto the house. They outfitted it with a track and harness so that Dave could be carried back and forth to the handicapped-accessible bathroom. They built that, too. They made Dave’s room extra-large, so there was space for a computer desk and for visitors and for his vent and motorized wheelchair. Anything that would make life easier for Dave and Patty.
Speaking of Patty.
I have seen her from time to time over the years. I’ve made a point to go into the furniture store where she worked to visit with her, so I could keep up on how Dave was doing. I went out to see him after he got back home. He showed me how he kept up on the stock reports through a voice-recognition program on his computer. Eldest son, Shane, had left behind his college education, returned home to run the farm and help his mother.
Patty is still and always was a beautiful woman. Inside and out. If a man has ever been loved better by a woman, I have yet to meet such a woman.
Patty Matheny stood by her man.
Hard as it was, Patty learned to live with Dave’s disabilities. The past dozen years of her life have been consumed by rotating caretakers and failing ventilators. She probably hasn’t slept through the night since that fateful day in September of 2001. For her 9-11 isn’t about what happened at the World Trade Center. She was already swept up in a life-altering crisis of her own.
Dave and the boys were her whole life.
That much would not change.
It only expanded beyond anything she ever imagined.
“I always had the feeling something important or big was going to happen to me,” Dave once told me. “This is definitely big but not what I’d hoped it would be.”
Dave lost his independence and his privacy. Patty gave those things up, too, in order to have Dave home again.
The last time Patty and I spoke she told me all about her new grandson, Peyton David Matheny. Like any new grandmother, Patty was over-the-moon in love with that baby. There was reason for rejoicing around the Matheny household.
When his family called me the other night to tell me that Dave had passed away, Peyton was, once again, the topic of discussion.
“Dave got to spend time with his grandson. And how that boy loved Dave! He knew there was something special about his grandpa. They adored each other.”
A dozen years ago, from his bedside in a Portland transition home, Dave Matheny recounted all that he had lost as a result of being thrown from a green horse. But, then, turning to look at the woman who has loved him through it all, Dave said: “I think I could still enjoy life through my kids and my family. I still have a lot to look forward to. Grandkids, someday.”
Dave Matheny was 65. Memorial contributions may be made to Pioneer Memorial Home Health and Hospice (P.O. Box 9, Heppner, OR 97836) or Matheny Project, which supports spinal cord research at OHSU (make checks payable to OHSU Foundation, subject line “Matheny Project” – mail to 1121 S.W. Salmon St. #100, Portland, OR 97205).