“A Second Chance at Life,” Ensign, Sept. 2000, 21
On 18 September 1992, Matt Robbins, a returned missionary, was the last to leave the ball field after tryouts for the Butte Junior College baseball team in Chico, California. When Matt’s car wouldn’t start, a friend, another team hopeful, offered him a ride. Matt folded his athletic 6-foot 2-inch form into the open-top vehicle, and the two drove off.
Soon afterward, 80 miles away, the phone rang in a country home outside Auburn, California. Betty Robbins, Matt’s mother, answered it. As she listened to the frantic voice telling her that Matt and a friend had been in a serious rollover accident, a complete calm flowed through her. Betty called to the bishop’s son, who was visiting, and said, “Go get your dad!” He ran the quarter mile across the fields to find his dad, Bishop Dean Heward, who, with Pete Squires, another neighbor, quickly gave Betty a priesthood blessing that promised her the ability to think clearly and make correct decisions for Matt.
Ed Robbins, Matt’s father, joined his wife, and they made the long drive from Auburn. Bracing themselves for the worst, they walked into the hospital in Chico. A crowd of nearly 50 people were already there waiting—including some of Matt’s ward members, his coach, and many from the ball team. Ed and Betty were deeply moved by their concern.
The Robbinses met with the doctor. “He told us our son was in a deep coma and likely would not live the night,” says Betty. Pain knifed through Ed and Betty as they went in to see their son. Ed, with help from two married sons—Eddie from nearby Yuba City and David who lived in Chico—gave Matt a blessing. Afterward, David took his mother into his arms. “I know this looks very bad, but while my hands were on his head, I felt he would live.”
Betty looked down at Matt’s silent form. Why did this happen to you? she thought. You are such a good person. Bishop King arrived with one of his counselors from Matt’s student ward, and he told Betty he felt strongly that they were to give her a blessing. In that blessing Betty was assured she would yet again walk with her son and talk with him.
Hours later, Ed left for home to gather a few things for Betty and to take care of Doug, then 12, the last of their six children still at home. It was the beginning of an arrangement between them that would last for over four months: Betty at Matt’s bedside, Ed holding the home and family together. That night Ed had a dream in which he could not get to the hospital to tell Betty that Matt would be all right. Then someone told him that at the proper time it would all be explained and he would agree that this was the only way. Ed had the same dream again the next night, and he felt comforted though puzzled.
In Chico, doctors told Betty that if Matt survived the first 72 hours, he might have a chance. After the second day, Betty was told she might want to become more involved in Matt’s care. Betty suddenly understood: She was the only one there who expected Matt to live. With that, she began doing all she could to help.
At the end of the 72-hour critical time, Matt was moved to another hospital bed, where he continued to lie in a coma. The first hurdle had been passed. But in the back of everyone’s thoughts were the same questions: Would he live? And if so, would he be healed? Or what lay ahead for him and for his family? While tests and trials come to all, might there be any purpose to this?
Although Matt lay silent in his new room, he was allowed visitors. They came in droves, not just once, but night after night. “We had 30 to 40 people join us many nights,” recalls Ed. “His team members, Church members from the single adult ward, and friends from school came to give support.”
Matt’s friends talked to him, sang songs, and shared meals together. Their goal was to surround Matt with the familiar voices of friends and family. Sisters from the student ward Relief Society brought meals in to Betty at the hospital.
Betty found Matt’s friends loved to talk about him. As she made friends with the young people, their topics of conversation widened. They discussed religion, death, and the purposes of life. As friends dropped in night after night, the room became a gathering place where faith took center stage. As days turned into a week, then two, the number of lives touched because of Matt’s accident multiplied.
Cynthia Gailey, Matt’s nurse, was one. “Betty talked to me about her faith. I even prayed with her sometimes,” she said. Others were also affected. At least four nurses told Betty they felt someone unseen in the room watching over Matt.
Cynthia took a special interest in Matt. “We need to give him every opportunity to let us know if he is ‘in’ there,” she said. Before he could go to a rehabilitation unit, he had to obey commands, to demonstrate cognitive function. To help, Betty talked to Matt constantly, sang to him, and rubbed his hands and feet.
As the days passed, Betty watched for some sign from Matt. Occasionally a limb would jerk, but that was all. Finally the doctors asked if they could discontinue life support. Betty and Ed spent the night in prayer. Had they correctly understood the many assurances they’d been given? Was it to be this life or the next when Matt would “live” and they would walk and talk with him again? By morning both felt the same thing: Matt needed more time. Life support would continue.
Meantime, the driver in the accident, Matt’s friend, was recovering. When he was finally able to walk down the hall, he was shocked at Matt’s condition. Guilt haunted him. Later, after he was discharged, he came back to visit the still-silent Matt. Betty was there. With tears in his eyes, the friend held Matt’s hand and talked to him. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so very sorry for the way things turned out. Please, if you can forgive me, lift my hand and bring it to your heart.” With a jerking motion, Matt pulled the clasped hands to his chest. Betty was dumbfounded. Was it random, she wondered, or had Matt responded to his friend’s plea? She couldn’t be sure, but the guilt-ridden driver felt sure Matt had forgiven him.
The next day, Betty, who had taken a break to get a few hours rest, thought Matt’s eyelids had raised slightly and that she had seen a flicker of movement. She walked to the window and opened the curtains. There, tacked to the window, she found a paper towel with a message scrawled by a friend who left before seeing Betty. “I asked Matt to squeeze my hand three times, and he did it!”
Betty ran to Matt’s bedside and placed a finger in the palm of his hand. “Matt, if you can hear me, squeeze my finger!” Matt’s hand slowly closed around his mother’s finger and squeezed it three times. Betty turned and ran down the hall sobbing, “He’s back! He’s back!” It was the first time she had fully cried since the accident.
It was the turning point. During the following two weeks Matt’s eyes began to open a little more, track movement in the room, and respond to commands. Although he still could not move, he was gradually coming out of the coma. Soon he was able to be sent to the rehab unit.
During the weeks and months that followed, Matt slowly made headway communicating, first with thumb signals. “Hey, Matt, should I take someone to the dance?” Thumb up. “So, am I good-looking tonight or what?” Thumb down, amid much laughter. Matt was clearly “back” even if his body was not cooperating.
Friends continued to throng his room, and somehow Matt, his courage, his attitude, and his cheer continued to touch lives. One day the stake president’s son, who did not then plan to serve a mission, came by. Something about Matt and the faith and hope he found in the room changed his mind. After his mission he visited Matt to thank him for his influence in that decision.
Three friends from the young adult ward taking missionary lessons were deeply touched by the outpouring of love and faith they experienced while visiting Matt. All were baptized. One asked to be confirmed at Matt’s bedside, where they placed Matt’s hand on her head along with those of the other priesthood brethren.
The months in rehab were marked by intensive speech and physical therapy. Matt learned to sign a few words with his hand. One day Matt held the arm of his rehab doctor, then signed, I love you. The doctor was deeply moved.
During this time Matt also faced many medical difficulties. Elsie Mendonca, Matt’s rehab nurse, taught Betty how to suction, position him, look for signs of infection, and transfer him in and out of bed. “He began playing a thumb game with us. You could tell there was a real personality in there,” says Elsie, whose father had recently died. As she worked with Matt, her own faith grew. “Knowing this family helped me,” she says. “I came to realize that even though hard things happen, God still loves us.”
Matt had to learn basic movements. If he learned, he would go home. Otherwise he would go to a long-term nursing facility. “Matt tried hard,” recalls Elsie. “I wanted to see him go home.” Slowly, over time, Matt learned to sit up, comb his hair, and bring a napkin to his mouth.
In January, after four months in the hospital, Matt was released to go home to Auburn. Many changes had to be made to the house. David Lupton, a close friend of Matt’s, built a ramp over steps connecting different levels within the home. The garage was converted to be Matt’s new room, complete with a hospital bed. Later, a new addition would be built on the house with a large room and bathroom especially equipped to care for Matt. Later still, a small swimming pool would be built where Matt could exercise.
In May, Matt needed to return to the hospital for minor surgery. Once in the car, Matt said, “Where are we going?”
Betty stared at him. “Matt! You spoke!” It was the first time since the accident that he had spoken, and it marked one more milestone. In time, sounds formed into words, and much of Matt’s ability to speak returned, although at times only the family could understand him. One day, Matt, with the help of Betty and a physical therapist, went for a walk outside, the first of many. Betty knew the promise she’d been given the night of Matt’s accident had come true. She was walking and talking once again with her son. One day he said, “Mom, I need to thank you.”
“For what?” she asked.
“For believing in me. I felt I was in a deep closet, but I couldn’t find the door. I heard voices. I heard the doctors say I wouldn’t live. Then I heard your voice say, ‘No, you don’t know Matt.’”
As Matt’s ability to communicate improved, Betty gradually began exploring what the experience meant to him. Betty soon realized that when Matt came out of the coma, he knew what had happened and what his mission in life was to be: to set a good example in the face of adversity. It explained so much. Even in the hospital, moving only a single finger, his cheerful attitude had touched lives.
That year was one of Matt’s best. Then, as 1993 came to an end, one day he said, “Oh, Mother, I see much darkness ahead.” Four days later he suffered congestive heart failure from a blood clot and nearly died. The doctors also found his lungs riddled with candida, a yeast infection. His weight plummeted. Through priesthood blessings and treatment, Matt’s heart regained 70 percent of its capacity—enough to keep him functioning—and once again he slowly began to recover. But more brain damage had occurred, and this time it appeared irreversible.
One night, again sitting by his hospital bedside, Betty heard voices singing in the hallway and invited three missionaries in. Before leaving, they asked if they might have prayer. One of them said, “We would like Matt to offer the prayer. And Betty, would you please be Matt’s mouthpiece?”
Betty closed her eyes and offered an eloquent prayer. “They weren’t my words,” she says. “I was given to know my son’s heart.”
After another four months in the hospital, in April 1994, Matt again went home. Despite his setbacks, his mind still seemed to function, and he continued to communicate through sounds, and eye and hand movements. He had to start again to learn to breathe, to make speech sounds, and to move.
During the coming months, members of the Robbinses’ Lake of the Pines Ward, Auburn California Stake, came in shifts to help Matt practice range-of-motion exercises and learn to stand up. Youth classes signed up to come a month at a time to help. Professional therapists visited weekly. As months passed, he again began making progress.
By July, Betty and Ed decided to hire full-time caregivers to assist Matt and relieve them from the constant drain of day-and-night care. One of those was Jason Kraus. “Betty hired me to get Matt out of the house, to do things with him. The first time I took Matt someplace alone without Betty, she followed us out to the van, giving lots of advice. Finally she stopped talking and said, ‘I guess I should just be quiet and let you two go.’ I nodded, and then the two of us noticed Matt’s grin—and his hand giving a thumbs-up. We both started laughing. Matt was always joking around like that.”
In the years after Matt’s accident, many people became involved in his care, and each has a story to tell. Finally, however, it was Nadine, Betty’s sister, who came to be Matt’s permanent aide. With her help, Betty and Ed have been able to establish a routine and rebuild their lives along new lines. Ed accepted a promotion as the engineering supervisor at the Oroville Dam, a change that has benefited him and the family. Matt’s brother Doug is serving a mission.
Matt, whose fighting spirit continues to inspire those who know him, is finding that his physical condition is showing some signs of improvement. Though Matt is confined to a wheelchair, once a week his former high school coach, Jack McCrory, invites him back to the high school gym, where he works out with Matt. Each year Coach McCrory invites Matt to present the Matt Robbins Male Athlete of the Year award, the school’s top athletic honor. In 1998 Matt presented it to Doug, who excels at football and track.
More important, Matt’s testimony continues to shine. He has been extended a calling to write letters on his computer to ward members in the mission field. “If you feel I can do this,” he told the bishop, “then the Lord will help me.”
During one fast and testimony meeting he signaled that he wanted to bear his testimony. Betty whispered to him, “But people can’t understand you.”
“People can understand my heart, Mom,” he replied, “and Father in Heaven can understand my words.”
Ed and Doug helped him to the podium, where his words, though not easily understood, nevertheless deeply moved those present. The Spirit had indeed carried his witness to those in the room that Heavenly Father knows and loves His children and is there to help us in our circumstances. “Always be ready to live your life,” says Matt. “Stay in there and fight, for you may have only one chance.”
Has this experience brought him closer to the Savior? “Yes,” he says, then bears his profound testimony one difficult word at a time: “I have found that He is in heaven and that He is my Brother.” That sure knowledge has lifted and carried Matt through eight years of hard physical trials since his accident. And despite his limitations, all who know Matt Robbins continue to be touched by his faith, his testimony, his courage—and his example.