A year ago last Thursday, tragedy struck Joyce Matarese in the form of a falling tree. When she and her husband, Bill, decided to fell a large oak tree on the property where they were building a retirement home, the tree, and their lives, took an unexpected direction.
"I don't remember what happened," Mrs. Matarese said of the incident. "I remember standing there and the next time I woke up, I was in the hospital. It fell the wrong way. I went to run, my husband said, but I wasn't quick enough. It caught me and pulled me up in the air and threw me down to the ground."
Bill Matarese said it was not unusual for the couple to cut down a tree together.
"We do everything together; that's why this accident occurred," Matarese said. "We lived in the middle of the woods in Pennsylvania for several years. We used to cut all our own firewood and everything. It was just kind of a freak accident. We didn't expect the tree to fall that way."
The couple had been very active.
"We went from extreme happiness and doing lots of activities together to an inactive life," Matarese said. "It was very discouraging at the beginning."
Joyce Matarese was used to doing things for herself and didn't shy away from difficult chores. While in Pennsylvania she built a 100-foot-long stone wall by herself.
"There's nothing I couldn't do," Mrs. Matarese said. "I used to go out into the woods in the pickup truck and pick up the stones and load them in the back and bring them back to the house. I dug a trench and put up the wall myself. I took care of all the gardening. I did the painting around the house. There were so many things I did. Refinish furniture. And I loved to dance. I was really a very good dancer."
After the accident, all that changed.
Mrs. Matarese was taken to Tampa General Hospital. There they discovered her numerous injuries: a broken left leg, a skull fracture, a pelvic fracture, six broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a broken shoulder, collar bone and back.
The surgeries began.
"They put a rod in my left leg," Mrs. Matarese said. "They had the back surgery, then they put a plate in my shoulder, then they had to stitch up my head. They said the pelvis would heal on its own, and my ribs healed on their own. Then they put me in a body brace for four months. This was all in the first three weeks I was in the hospital."
Then the really bad news came. Mrs. Matarese was told she would never walk again.
"When they came in and told me that I'd never walk again, I never gave up hope. But I really struggled. I was scared because I never had anything wrong with me before this happened. I think that's what saved me. I was in perfect health. I was a swimmer, a jogger, I worked out in the gym since I was 20 years old. I ate all the right food and I had a very good outlook. I was like an athlete. They were shocked that I survived. For people with those type of injuries, it's very hard to survive, but because of the good health that I was in, and I had a strong will, I made it."
Mrs. Matarese was transferred to a rehab center in Brooksville and then, because she couldn't lift her right arm, she was sent to one at Bayonet Point.
"I was there for two months," Mrs. Matarese said. "They said everything would heal but my legs. They said I would never walk again. It would take a miracle. Every place I went they were very good and kind and caring and responsible. They were wonderful to me there. I left there in April and went back down to Tampa General to their rehab center for five weeks and then came home."
Mrs. Matarese learned about a rehab center in St. Louis. She went there and was examined by one of the doctors who had treated actor Christopher Reeve. She was accepted into the program and stayed there from the end of July through Oct. 20.
It was there that her miracle began.
"In St. Louis, they don't tell you that you're never going to walk again. They say some people have it harder than others. They always told me I have the potential. They put me in a standing machine every other day, which is wonderful for your bones, for your heart, for all your bodily functions. They also put me on a special bike and put these stems on my legs that stimulate the muscles in my legs and help me push the bike myself without a motor or anything. When I first went there I had to keep pushing down with my hands on my thighs to make myself pedal. By the time I left, I could pedal a whole hour without having to push on my legs once.
"I feel that a miracle is happening. I am doing things that no one with an injury that I have is really supposed to do _ even the fact that I'm walking in the braces. They don't recommend anybody over 50 wear them, because it takes so much strength and will, and I have both."
Mrs. Matarese believes it was the power of prayer that enabled her to climb out of her initial depression and work toward her remarkable recovery. Her pastor, the Rev. David Banks of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, put her on the church prayer list. She began learning that neighbors she had never met were praying for her. In St. Louis, she received cards from people she didn't even know who said they were praying for her.
"When all this happened to me it was just so hard to accept," she said. "I was so angry with myself at what I'd lost. It was very hard. But I made myself get over it and be strong. And everybody prayed and prayed for me, and I think that's what helped. And they're still praying, and I'm still praying every day. I know God is in my corner. I think by all rights I should have died from what happened to me. I really had terrible injuries. But I made it, and I'm coming back strong little by little."
Now Mrs. Matarese receives physical therapy locally twice a week with therapist Pat Montayre.
"He's wonderful," Mrs. Matarese said. "He just uses his hands and massages in different places and he's loosening up all the muscles and getting the nerves regenerated. When I twist now, I can feel my hips turning. The other day he kept pushing on my legs and he could feel movement and I could tighten and feel the muscle move in my leg. In St. Louis, there were people who couldn't feel their legs but could still walk. I'm in these braces now and they're very bulky braces, like a big boot that comes up your knee and a part goes up the side and I can walk in them. But eventually they said they could see me just walking with a splint from my knee down, which wouldn't be bad. I hope to get back to the way I was, but if I don't, I would settle for that. I'd be happy with that, to be out of the wheelchair."
The Matareses have high hopes for 2005.
"She's just been a tower of strength through this whole thing," Bill Matarese said.
"I've come further than anybody thought," Mrs. Matarese said. "I do laundry at home. I can wash the floors. I can get in and out of the bed on my own with a sliding board. I totally dress myself. Once I get into the shower I can take my own shower. My husband just has to help me get into the shower chair. I can spend half a day all by myself in the house. I have therapy twice a week _ plus at home I pull on pulleys. I am trying to get a standing machine. I ordered a special bike that I can ride. I'm hoping to be walking by the end of 2005. It's not over yet. It will be over when I'm walking again."
Joyce Matarese walks with the encouragement of her husband, Bill. When a tree fell on her a year ago, doctors told her she would never walk again. She believes prayer has given her a miracle. She still needs a wheelchair most of the time, but she fully intends to one day walk away from it for good.