TRAPPED MATT FIGHTS BACK
By DAVID BANCROFT
IN forced, slow and untidy handwriting, Matt Fester wrote one word that described how he was feeling after five months paralysed.
'Trapped', he wrote.
For his mother, Lynne Cairns, who had kept a bedside vigil since he entered what doctors termed a residual catatonic state, the message was powerful.
Her overwhelming emotion was sympathy. For five months her 24-year-old son had been unable to move. He was fed through a nasal tube and couldn't speak. His only method of communication was through eye movement. His mother could understand his frustration, but his scrawled message also suggested that his health was returning.
Until 2002 Matt had been healthy. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia ? a diagnosis that doctors now think may have been wrong ? but was otherwise fit.
He had been working on a sheep and cattle property in the west of the state when the property owners thought there was something amiss.
After assessment, he had a shunt installed in his skull to drain an excess of spinal fluid from his brain. On April 27 he had a shunt revision and, according to Mrs Cairns, that was 'when he started to go downhill'.
She took him to Grafton Base Hospital. He was flown to Brisbane while she drove. She met him at the Princess Alexandra Hospital at 6am on April 28. He was 'very disoriented'.
He had another operation on April 29. When he came out he complained of being hungry, but when he went to eat, he couldn't chew. His jaw was locked.
Within a few hours he was completely paralysed with neuroleptic malignant syndrome (NMS), a side-effect of anti-psychotic drugs.
"He came out (of surgery) and there was just nothing," Mrs Cairns said.
She said that although Matt's was one of only a handful of cases in Australia, doctors soon realised he had NMS. In other cases the paralysis left after a couple of weeks. For Matt, that was not the case.
Mrs Cairns lived in a unit in Brisbane. Every morning she would return to the hospital, and would depart only when he had gone to sleep.
She talked to him, massaged his withering legs. "He would just look at me. He had a solid, blank face," she said.
After months, some muscle movement returned to his hands and feet and he could communicate by moving his eyes.
If he wanted to answer 'yes' he would look at his mother. To answer 'no' he would look away.
"I was sitting there one day and he was just glaring at me," she said. She asked him to write, in one word, how he felt. He wrote 'trapped'.
"The doctors and nurses were amazed," Mrs Cairns said.
That was five months after he became paralysed. With occupational therapy, he slowly progressed. It was on October 28, 2002, when playing the card game 'uno' with his mother, that things changed.
"He suddenly started calling the cards," she said.
"I couldn't believe it. The nurses in the room just stopped. It was as clear as a bell.
"He just stopped and said: 'I am talking, aren't I?'"
He progressed slowly, first sipping water from a spoon before progressing to soup.
His first solid meal in months was his mother's garlic prawns, cooked in the Brisbane unit.
"He sat up there like royalty," Mrs Cairns said.
"Nobody else was going to get any."
Matt was released from hospital in March 2003, 11 months after he was admitted.
It will be another three years before doctors know his prognosis.
His memory still suffers and the disease can return at any time.
Now back in Grafton, he is playing tennis, walking dogs for the Grafton Pound and living independently.
At the pound on Friday, Matt was presented with a certificate recognising his assistance in exercising the dogs.
"I've been doing it on and off for 12 months," he said.
"I just love animals ... it is like therapy."
Matt would now love to find work. Walking greyhounds or other work with animals would be terrific.
Mrs Cairns said helping out with animals had really helped with his recovery.
She said she wanted people to be aware that, although rare, anybody taking anti-psychotic medication was susceptible to NMS.