LONG BEACH — Seventeen years ago, Matthew Thomas was placed in charge of cleaning and taking care of his friend Jim Roue’s hydrobikes in Newport Beach.
“While that doesn’t mean anything to us, it meant a whole lot to Matt,” said John Huntington, owner of Long Beach Hydrobikes and a friend of Thomas’. “When he started cleaning that bike, he could barely hold a rag in his hand — but it gave him such a feeling of confidence that he was once again in charge of something.”
Three years prior to Thomas’s first encounter with a Hydrobike, he was a promising high school athlete who ran a 4.5-second 40-yard-dash and was awarded a scholarship to play football at Brigham Young University. In 1991, the whole world was in front of him.
Everything changed when Thomas hitched a ride with a friend who was driving under the influence, and the two ended up in a terrible car accident. Thomas sustained serious brain damage and remained in a coma for three months after the accident. Doctors gave him less than a 5 percent chance to live and said that he would most likely never come out of the coma.
After 16 days in a hospital in Thousand Oaks, Thomas was transferred to Northridge Hospital Medical Center. There, he emerged from the coma and underwent 12 months of intensive therapy as part of the brain injury day treatment program called the TGI Carehouse (“Thank God I Care” Guild). Thomas relearned how to walk, read, write and talk.
“I had to learn how to button a shirt, put on a belt and figure out directions to and from places again,” said Thomas, who grew up in North Hollywood.
Thomas and his mother, Gay Wassall-Kelly, then moved to Newport Beach, and Thomas underwent another two years of therapy at Coastline Community College’s Acquired Brain Injury Center, which specialized in cognitive retraining for adults with brain trauma.
A New Home, A New Ride
The move to Newport Beach placed Thomas close to his grandparents, who lived on Balboa Island. That’s where he first met Roue and his hydrobike.
After “letting” Thomas clean his hydrobike for a few months, Roue gave him two bikes to take care of, since Roue was moving away from the harbor and wanted to leave them in capable hands.
“Matthew didn’t have a lot of friends, because a lot of people thought he was drunk: He still limps and slurs his speech from the brain trauma, which steers some people away,” Wassall-Kelly said. “But the hydrobikes gave him an outlet and tremendous enjoyment.”
Thomas remains partially paralyzed on the left side of his body, making stability and some basic motor skills difficult. The hydrobike’s sturdy platform allows Thomas to enjoy independence on the water without having to worry about keeping his balance.
For the past 17 years, Thomas has been riding and maintaining hydrobikes around Newport and Long Beach harbors, waving to boaters, racing the Balboa Island Ferry and generally being happy, while bringing smiles to those he comes in contact with, as well.
John Huntington, who owns and runs Long Beach Hydrobikes on North Harbor Drive at the Alamitos Bay channel entrance, first heard of Thomas in 2008, when he was calling to get replacement parts for one of his hydrobikes.
“The parts guy said there was a guy in Newport who had been calling him for 16 years, trying to get somebody to rent hydrobikes in Southern California,” Huntington said. That guy was Matt. “He’s like a tiger: He doesn’t let go when he is working toward something.”
The two became friends as Huntington got his Long Beach Hydrobikes rental center started. Thomas visited frequently to help out, and he began organizing sessions with the Long Beach Boys and Girls Clubs and children with disabilities, on how to clean and ride hydrobikes.
“Matt has the capability of really being able to communicate with the kids,” Huntington said. “He shows them the pictures of himself — all the blood, guts and gore of when he was in a coma — and the kids say, ‘gee, he was a lot worse off than I was.’”
Thomas’ daily routine involved visiting coma patients at Coastline Community College and heading to Alamitos Bay for hydrobike sessions — and perhaps a joyride for himself in the harbor. But one day, the late Mark Bixby, a Long Beach community leader from one of the city’s founding families and a serious bicycle enthusiast, came down to Huntington’s rental site to test out a hydrobike.
After a lap around the harbor, Bixby got the idea to attempt a channel crossing from Catalina to Long Beach aboard a hydrobike. Sadly, he never got the opportunity to attempt the crossing. He was one of five passengers who died in a plane crash March 16 during takeoff from Long Beach Airport.
Thomas, however, knew of Bixby’s idea and decided to run with it.
“He got the crazy idea to try the channel crossing, and he just kept pushing for it,” Huntington said.
On Sept. 11, Thomas set out for Catalina with his team, friends and a chase boat donated by the Cabrillo Beach Youth Sailing Club, to attempt the 28-mile crossing to Long Beach.
It took Thomas seven hours and 15 minutes to complete the crossing — and he became the first person ever to complete the journey aboard a hydrobike.
“At one point, I thought I was about two hours away, but it was actually more like four — and that’s when I thought, ‘uh oh,’” Thomas said.
“I never discouraged him from trying it; but as a mother, I wanted to,” Wassall-Kelly said. “Through the whole event, I was a wreck — but nothing compares to how I felt 20 years ago. All I did was pray. Matthew has a strong faith, and he passes that on to others.”
With about 1 mile to go and his legs feeling like jelly, Thomas said a dolphin jumped out of the water about 10 feet in front of him.
“When I saw that, I just knew I was going to get through this with God’s grace,” Thomas said. “Always with God’s grace.”
That grace is what Thomas believes got him through the crossing, the car crash, the coma and every day since. And it is also what has inspired him to create Positive Matters, a charity aimed at helping people with disabilities to become more independent through unique recreational activities.
“I can’t run a 4.5-second 40 anymore, but I want to help others,” Thomas said. “And whatever I want to do, I can: I just have to put my mind to it.”
Twenty years after the accident, Thomas is still working on his motor skills and improving his walking to minimize the limp. He struggles with short-term memory loss but thrives in persistence.
“It took him seven years to get his driver’s license, and he has been working toward his AA (college associate of arts degree) for the past 11 years, with only one class left to pass,” Wassall-Kelly said.
But, that class is Algebra, Thomas added, which might take an extra semester to get through.
“It’s all a choice. Everything you do is a choice — and you can either choose to do it or not to do it,” Thomas said.
Thomas is working on his charity with his partner, Dr. Mauro Zappaterra, a specialist in traumatic brain injuries. Zappaterra heard about Thomas’ service work for kids with disabilities at the Long Beach Hydrobikes center, and he saw the potential in the active therapy the hydrobikes could bring.
“I wanted to join with him, because I’m a physician interested in rehabilitation,” Zappaterra said. “The hydrobike is a perfect way to get people who have had traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries to be a member of society again. You don’t need balance; you just need to pedal.”
As the partnership grew into a friendship, Zappaterra decided to tag along on one of Thomas’ trips to the Coastline Community Brain Injury Center, where he regularly visited patients in comas. It was during this time that Zappaterra got to see the truly unique abilities Thomas had.
As he watched Thomas interact with each patient, he noticed that he treated every patient as a coherent person, capable of conversation. During each visit, he would inform the patients what time it was, who was in the room and what the weather was like, and he would constantly inform them of what was going on around them.
He would play music that they liked, brush patients’ hair, play air guitar with the arms of a patient who was a musician and fully immerse himself in the patients’ lives.
“He has an intuitive sense of what people in a coma need,” Zappaterra said. “You couldn’t read about it in a book. It’s like an unconscious knowledge he has from experiencing a coma.”
Thomas said that many of the activities and interactions he has with the patients are things he would have liked to have been able to do or hear when he was in a coma.
“When people walked into the room, I wanted them to tell me who they were and reinforce me daily of where I was and what was going on,” Thomas said.
With Zappatera’s research and Thomas’ experience, the team is working to create a sort of “coma therapy,” where patients in various states of a coma for different amounts of time can get treatment provided by hospital employees trained by both Zappaterra and Thomas.
“Matt jokes that I have the ‘cre’-dentials, and he has the ‘coma’-dentials,” Zappaterra said, laughing. “It’s funny, but it kind of works. I don’t have the (first-person coma) experience, but it’s the field that I’m in.”
In describing what Thomas brings to the coma therapy idea, Zappaterra said it is something outside the medical realm.
“There’s just this deep goodness about Matt, and how he believes another human should be treated,” Zappaterra said. “There is something about recognizing what a coma victim needs. Matt just kind of says what he thinks is obvious, but what seems obvious to him oftentimes isn’t. It’s a privilege to watch him — and a privilege to get to work with him.”
For more information on Thomas’ voyage or for further details on Positive Matters, visit positive-matters.org.