After a Stroke, This Rock Climber is Scaling the Heights of Hope
When rock climber Matthew Little came to CNS, he was confined to a wheelchair and wondered if he’d ever scale a mountain again. His life was climbing, taking in the vistas of sky, clouds and pines, and breathing in the crisp air at the top of a peak. Matthew described himself as a weekend warrior, driving to the desert to rock climb routes in Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and the Eastern Sierras. Turns out he was indeed a warrior of determination, with the help of CNS’ therapy team.
Matthew had his heart set on becoming a professional freestyle climber and practiced traditional or “trad” climbing, in which climbers carry all their gear to their chosen – and often the highest – elevations. During the week, Matthew worked full-time for a non-profit organization, which required a significant amount of travel to such destinations as Turkey and Haiti. However, in April 2017 Matthew was admitted to the emergency room after experiencing severe headaches.
“I thought I was having a stroke,” he recalled. Unfortunately, Matthew was right. An MRI scan indicated that he had a hemorrhagic stroke in the pontine region of the brain, a structure of the brain stem needed for breathing, hearing, taste, balance, and more. His health conditions worsened when he developed respiratory failure, and a tracheotomy was performed to allow oxygen to pass through his body. He also developed life-threatening bacterial infections, including sepsis and pneumonia, as well as right side hemiparesis, causing weakness in his right side. After a month in the hospital, Matthew was released in May and began acute rehabilitation at California Rehabilitation Institute in Los Angeles.
In June 2017, he began inpatient treatment at CNS’ Bakersfield location, before moving to CNS’ Los Angeles clinic in February for outpatient treatment, where he currently attends therapy five days a week. “He was in a wheelchair, and his biggest deficits were physical,” said Lily Garcia, Matthew’s Case Manager. “He couldn’t stand for a long period and he was very anxious and worried about falling.”
“I was numb on the right side of my body, and the left side of my face drooped,” Matthew recalled. “I could barely see out of my left eye and I had trouble getting words out or being understood. I couldn’t hold a conversation like the one we’re having now.”
After months of intensive physical therapy, focusing on walking and balance training, Matthew progressed from dependency on a wheelchair to using a four-point walking cane. Matthew’s treatment also involves cognitive therapy, vision and light therapy for his eyes, and speech therapy. “As part of speech therapy, he gave a presentation on rock climbing to patients and staff,” said Lily. “We could see dramatic improvements in his speech and self-confidence; everyone was moved by his knowledge and passion for rock climbing.” This real-world retraining builds cognitive and communication skills and is utilized by CNS to support patients’ community reintegration.
As a result of the vision and light therapy, Matthew is able to see out of his left eye again. On July 12th he celebrated one of many milestones he was to experience at CNS. He took his first walk without the help of a device, depending only on his physical therapists’ assistance. More milestones were in the making for this determined patient. “I recently reached out to my old climbing partner and asked if he would take me climbing at our old spot, the Stronghold Climbing Gym in Los Angeles,” Matthew said. “I’ve started doing traditional climbing again in a harness using my arms and legs, but I do it a lot more slowly,” he explained. “It’s great for muscle memory because my muscles remember how to climb.”
“No matter how far I got in my recovery process I always knew I could rock climb,” he continued. “I’m just learning to understand my new body and mind, and developing skills again.” At Stronghold, Matthew is joined by two climbing buddies that he has known for over ten years. The three men have climbed peaks all over the country. Today, they’re helping Matthew relearn the skills of ascending to the top of a 40-foot climbing wall, with safety ropes as support.
Matthew says his dream job is to work for CNS in some way, shape or form. “CNS has given me so much, and I want to be able to give back,” he said. Matthew’s physical therapist is even helping him apply for prerequisite therapy classes, and he hopes to start school in the fall. “You guys don’t know it, but you’re in the business of giving second chances,” said Matthew. “CNS has given me a second chance.”
Watch: Matthew Little : The Journey