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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

Sophomore LHP Shane Sdao (38) reacts after a strikeout during Texas A&Ms game against Texas at Disch-Falk Field on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (CJ Smith/The Battalion)
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Sophomore LHP Shane Sdao (38) reacts after a strikeout during Texas A&Ms game against Texas at Disch-Falk Field on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (CJ Smith/The Battalion)
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Kennedy White, 19, sits for a portrait in the sweats she wore the night of her alleged assault inside the Y.M.C.A building that holds Texas A&M’s Title IX offices in College Station, Texas on Feb. 16, 2024 (Ishika Samant/The Battalion).
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Sophomore LHP Shane Sdao (38) reacts after a strikeout during Texas A&Ms game against Texas at Disch-Falk Field on Tuesday, March 5, 2024. (CJ Smith/The Battalion)
A Sunday salvage
May 12, 2024

Start over

On Sept. 25, 1998, Don Mathews was assaulted by three men who left him for dead on the side of a Huntsville road. After being stabilized at Huntsville Memorial Hospital, Don was moved to the Memorial Hospital Intensive Care Unit in Houston to recover.
Everett Harrell of the Huntsville Police Department was the officer who investigated the assault and arrested the attackers. Finding them was easy enough. It only took two days to figure out who they were, track them back to their hometown and bring them in.
“We were on them before they had a chance to do anything or go anywhere,” Harrell said.
David Weeks, the Walker County district attorney, pushed for an aggravated assault charge against the attackers. The county won the case – one of the three attackers was sentenced to 10 years in prison, one to 15 years and the third was sentenced to 20 years. Since the sentencing, one of the suspects has died while in prison.
Speech. Balance. Memory. Coordination.
When Don woke up 20 days after the attack, he wasn’t worried about the parts of his brain that controlled these functions. He had his hands full just living again. Drawing breath was a miracle for someone with his initial prognosis.
The injury to his brain was extensive, a scythe’s edge slicing into frail neurons, and Don wasn’t the same.
Shortly after coming out of his coma, Don was moved to a care facility where elderly patients are sent during their last days. Don was the youngest patient in the facility, and that alone almost caused his death.
“They were treating him as if he were an 80-year-old, not a 21-year-old who had a metabolism that burned anything you put in him in five minutes,” Regina said.
He was underfed through the feeding tube; his nourishment calibrated for someone much older and much less active. He dropped to 90 pounds, and his legs were in constant automatic movement, 24 hours a day.
Regina demanded Don be transferred to The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research, or TIRR, for proper care.
“I was screaming at the doctors to get him out of there. He was going to die in that bed,” his mother Regina Mathews said.
And she got her way. Don continued living.
“Can you imagine that everything you think is real, is not?”
He was moved back to TIRR, to start his recovery.
Don had a long road ahead of him before he was considered rehabilitated. He had to learn how to walk, how to talk. His balance and coordination were gone, and his memory was rent apart.
“I’d tell him ‘I’m just going to get a soft drink, I’ll be right back,'” Regina said. “I would be back in five minutes and he would ask ‘Where you been?'”
Relearning the basics
“Oh no. This isn’t good.” The nurse has seen this before and it’s a bad sign. His mom doesn’t understand. To her, it looks like Don is just curled up in his bed, something he would do before the attack.
And then it slowly comes to her. She bends down and asks Don an important question.
“Don, how old are you?”
“Twelve.”
The profound damage to his brain had convinced him he was nearly 10 years younger than he really was. It was understandable; he was having to retrain his body.
“They said it would be like raising him again. And it was,” Regina said.
It wasn’t for a couple years, not until he was out of the hospitals, that he realized that 12 had passed him more than a decade ago.
To live or not to live
Recovering from a brain injury is no sure thing. Even though he thought he had regressed in age and was fighting memory issues, he was still making progress. He was putting words together and earning back his coordination slowly, but in February, five months after the attack, his mother noticed a change.
“Don started going backward in his therapy,” Regina said.
The doctors assumed Don was depressed, and put him on medication, but Don continued to worsen, until he was only awake about 30 minutes a day. Regina wanted a CT scan. The doctors refused.
It was up to his mother to get him over this last big hurdle. The last one that could kill him.
Crossing over to the living
“My son is in here dying, and no one is doing anything about it! Somebody get me a doctor!”
Regina’s screams pierce the hospital corridors. The nurses at the station relent to the furious mother and promise her a CT scan the next day.
When tomorrow comes, Don is wheeled to Methodist Hospital and looked at by the doctors. His mother is right.
A massive blood clot has formed in Don’s brain. He could be dead any minute. Don doesn’t go back to his room; he goes to surgery.
“Thank God you got him in here. It’s as bad as it gets.” It’s his neurosurgeon.
After the surgery, tubes are put in Don’s forehead to drain any remaining liquid. It’s a small price to pay to get back to his recovery.
Don’s life wouldn’t be threatened again, and even though he still had several months to go before he could walk free, he was on his way. He was going to make it.
Hand-eye coordination
When Don steps up to the free-throw line, he talks a lot of smack. “I don’t think I’m gonna miss this time,” said the senior psychology major Don.
His personal trainer at Aerofit, James Shipman, has him shoot free throws in the middle of their workouts. If he makes one, he goes easy on him. If not, more push-ups.
He hands Don a basketball and flashes a knowing smile while Don readies himself.
“He never makes these,” Shipman said.
But this time, Don wins bragging rights – he sinks four out of five. No stage fright here. Don’s shooting stroke, though, is off. He leans forward so much that it’s hard to imagine he’s comfortable and he has trouble keeping a dribble going.
“You can tell he knows what he’s doing,” Shipman said. “He just can’t quite connect his hands and brain.”
Back on track
Don could play a little point guard before the attack 10 years ago. He’s built for it – tall and wiry, but his injury has robbed him of his athleticism. He has to concentrate to perform tasks that require fine precision. His brain is uncertain where his center of gravity should be now, and he leans back as he walks, throwing off his balance. He had to train himself to write, and he can manage it only when he blocks everything else out.
His memory of the attack and most of his recovery is gone, a small blip of mercy among a backdrop of pain. His short-term memory is in shambles and requires constant training to retain information. That makes it tough to remember the material he studies in his psychology classes.
“I used to be able to just read a book two or three times and it would go into long-term memory, now I have to make flash cards and study them over and over to remember,” Don said.
Don, 31, is considering going to seminary school, but he can only handle a couple classes a semester; any more than that and he’s overworked and without enough time to study for his tests. He requires someone to take notes for him in his classes and he takes his exams in a quiet room provided by disability services. He is easily distracted during tests.
And when Don speaks, it’s with a wry sense of humor warped by his violent experience. He fumbles for words, stutters and occasionally forgets what the conversation is about. Sometimes, you can pick out the frustration in his voice – he knows what he wants to say, but the electrical pulses whipping through his brain get redirected or lost in the haze.
“What am I gonna do? Be mad the rest of my life? That’s not good for me,” Don said.
These days, he is focused on moving forward. He knows he can’t dwell on the anger or it could consume him.
And yet, he’s defied all expectations.
Preaching to the choir
Central Baptist Church is where Don spends several days a week practicing and singing in the church choir and meeting in small groups.
“Turn to page 443. We need more from the men back there,” said Grady Chism, a worship minister and the choir director at the church. Among the other bass voices, Don is seated at the back of the practice room. He’s normally very social, but here he’s quiet unless he’s singing.
“My faith is really important to me. I believe in evangelizing – it’s like throwing a party for Jesus,” Don said.
He attributes his rehabilitation to his faith. “It’s through the grace of Jesus Christ that I recovered.”
Speech. Balance. Memory. Coordination.
To many, it would be too high a price to pay for anything. But even though Don has lost them in some capacity, after the attack, the doctors’ predictions and several brushes with death, he has something worth all of those:Life.

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