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Memoir

“After I suffered a catastrophic brain injury, doctors told me I may never walk or talk again. Three years later, I finished medical school”

Matthew Galati was 23 and in his second year of medical school when a car accident left him with a devastating traumatic brain injury. Instead of accepting his grim prognosis, he made a full recovery—and now helps others who are suffering from severe brain injuries

By Matthew Galati, as told to Penn Javdan| Photography by Brent Gooden
“After I suffered a catastrophic brain injury, doctors told me I may never walk or talk again. Three years later, I finished medical school”

I grew up in Woodbridge, Ontario, in a close-knit family with two sisters. As early as I can remember, the pressure to perform in both sports and school weighed heavily on me. My parents were supportive of all of my aspirations: they drove me to soccer practices and attended my games, and on weekends, they helped me set up pylons in the backyard so I could do drills. When I was 14, my hard work paid off, and I was selected to play for a Canadian soccer team that competed against semi-professional teams in England. My intense drive to succeed only grew as the years went on.

In 2011, I graduated with a bachelor of science from Western University, majoring in medical sciences. I wanted to help others, and my next ambition was medical school, where I hoped to focus on cardiology. After a long, nerve-wracking period of checking the mailbox, I was accepted into the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, the joint medical program between Western and the University of Windsor. I was ecstatic.

In my first year, I quickly realized how demanding the program was. I had to adapt to a new cohort of talented peers, adjust to life in Windsor and master an overwhelming breadth of knowledge. By 2013, just over two years into my program, I was beginning to excel, but it came at a cost. I spent all my time studying and often slept only three or four hours a night. Despite these sacrifices, I found comfort in my loving family, supportive friends and a budding career. The future looked promising.

One weekend in late January of 2013, when I was 23, I drove to Toronto for a visit. I had planned to drive back to campus on Sunday night, but a blizzard hit, so I decided to leave the next morning, hoping that the weather might clear up. On Monday morning, it was still cold and white outside, but I had a mandatory class to attend later that day, so I headed back to Windsor with my friend Phil riding in the passenger seat. We drove westbound on Highway 401 for an hour before the police began detouring cars off of the highway in Woodstock, over 200 kilometres away from school. 

We followed the detour, but the weather and road conditions were so poor that I lost control of the car and collided with a tree, the driver’s side absorbing the majority of the impact. Phil sustained fractured ribs, but he was conscious. He called an ambulance while I slipped out of consciousness, blacking out. First responders arrived in less than 15 minutes. They used the jaws of life to pry me from the car, and an ambulance transported me to a hospital in Woodstock in life-threatening condition. The last thing I remember saying was, “How’s Phil?” I owe my life to my friend, who acted quickly despite his own injuries.

At the hospital, I remained in a coma, and the doctors placed me on life support. I had multiple skull fractures along with fractures in almost every rib, collapsed lungs, a severed nerve in my face and a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) with bleeding. Once my condition stabilized, about 24 hours later, I was transported to the critical care unit at the London Victoria Hospital for further treatment. Opening up my skull and performing brain surgery was too risky, so surgeons opted against it.

I emerged from my coma on my own three days after the accident. I was disoriented, my memory was fuzzy and I struggled to speak. Panicked and confused, I ripped out my tubes and IV lines, wanting to rise to my feet. Staff tried to calm me down, as I didn’t yet fully understand what had happened to me. Doctors had categorized my TBI as catastrophic; my brain’s ability to recover from such a violent injury was questionable. The doctors gave my family a guarded prognosis: “We don’t know if he’ll be able to walk or talk again, let alone finish med school.” I struggled to grasp the enormity of what I was hearing. My family was devastated.

After about a week in London, I was relocated to Sunnybrook Hospital, where I would be closer to my support network. As I faced the mountainous challenges of relearning how to think, speak and walk, a powerful resolve to accept nothing less than a complete recovery welled up inside me. I have to do something, I thought. But I didn’t know what.

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At Sunnybrook, I started the slow process of rehabilitation. My mother sat at my bedside with flash cards, reteaching me simple math, language and how to tell time. My sisters and father helped feed me and kept me company. Then, in late February of 2013, I was admitted to Toronto Rehab for about six weeks of inpatient rehabilitation. I underwent physiotherapy to build up my strength and mobility, and I worked with a speech language pathologist and an occupational therapist to improve my speaking and cognition and relearn the activities of daily living, like cooking, paying bills and navigating streets as a pedestrian. In the hope of returning to medical school, I enrolled in a research study, conducted by Dr. Robin Green, the Canada Research Chair in traumatic brain injury, into whether intensified rehab would lead to a stronger recovery from a TBI. As part of the study, I had to undergo a series of neurological examinations at different stages of my recovery. The first test, which assessed my attention, memory and speed of processing, completed at the end of my inpatient stay, indicated that my odds of returning to medical school was unfavourable. I was extremely disheartened, but I became even more determined to do everything in my power to improve.

At the time, TBI patients were told to avoid overstimulating a recovering brain. The recommendation was to rest in a dark room and limit exercise—but this only made me feel worse, and waves of depression began to roll in. Instead of giving in to the view that there wasn’t anything else I could do to recover, I thought, There has to be a way. Around that time, my father read an article—then ahead of its time—about a man who had suffered a TBI and began doing aerobic exercise. “His brain turned on like a light switch,” my father said.

We learned that aerobic exercise increases the flow of vital blood-carrying neuro-hormones and oxygen to the brain. It also creates new brain cells through a process called neurogenesis. Encouraged by these findings, I built myself up to running five kilometres every morning through a regimen of physical therapy and strength training at the gym. I also made other changes to my lifestyle: I reduced my screen time and started going to bed at a consistent hour every night, which helped me sleep better. By meditating, I learned to be present and manage negative thoughts. I ate foods that were rich in Omega-3, like salmon and walnuts, along with leafy green vegetables, like kale and spinach, which contain lutein, a nutrient that protects brain cells. I also performed cognitive exercises, like reviewing old medical school notes, and strummed my guitar to refine my fine motor skills. As my confidence returned, I started socializing with friends again. I noticed a difference: my speech, memory and processing began to improve drastically. 

“After I suffered a catastrophic brain injury, doctors told me I may never walk or talk again. Three years later, I finished medical school”

About six months after my accident, I wrote a second evaluation as part of the study I had enrolled in. This time, the scores for my mental skills were much higher, and I felt like I’d found real hope. My recovery continued to be so successful that, in 2014, I was ready to return to medical school. I graduated two years later, balancing the challenges of school with my continuing rehabilitation, and completed my residency in family medicine at Western University. Afterward, I did a fellowship focused on integrative medicine at the University of Toronto.

Inspired by what my family and I had learned through my recovery, I founded a non-profit organization called Brain Changes Initiative (BCI), which aims to improve care for TBI through research, education, advocacy and awareness around non-pharmacological approaches to brain health. During the summer, we host workouts every other Sunday in Bloor West Village, open to TBI survivors and the general public, to raise awareness about the positive effects of exercise on the brain. 

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Today, I have a family practice in Scarborough, and I work as a hospitalist, diagnosing and treating a range of illnesses, at a rehabilitation hospital in Toronto. I also do educational talks at schools and other organizations that are interested in promoting brain health. I’m driven by my desire to help others who suffer from TBI. I want to encourage people to never give up on themselves and to know that there are things we can all do to get and stay healthy.

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