Oregon man makes it home for Christmas

This story was published 12/25/02

By Karen Spears Zacharias
Herald Oregon bureau

SAND HOLLOW, Ore. -- Steam rose from the cup of tea sitting on the kitchen table. A glass of tap water sat there, too.

As he talked, Dave Matheny's voice grew dry and raspy. But he didn't reach for a drink.

He couldn't.

Picking up the tea, caretaker Shannon Voorhes gingerly placed a straw into his mouth. As Dave, 54, took small sips, she fiddled with the trachea tube threaded into his throat.

A respirator on the back of his motorized wheelchair pumped life into Dave's lungs. Its pulsating rhythm was bothersome at first, like a clock ticking in a darkened room, but gradually became soothing.

The sound is constant reassurance that Dave lives on. And as Christmas neared, he was feeling blessed to finally be home again.

- - -

Sept. 9, 2001, started out as one of those glorious fall days that men like Dave long for -- a day to scout for elk in the foothills of the Blue Mountains in southern Morrow County.

Farm chores would just have to wait. He packed up his gear and his colt and rode off into the hills with sister Sally Brosnan and her husband Mark.

Dave did not have even a chill of premonition. There was nothing, not even a flinch in the colt's flank, to warn him of the moment that nearly killed him.

As they climbed a mountain ridge, something spooked the colt, which tossed Dave. He landed hard, snapping his neck.

For the next three hours, as an emergency crew struggled to reach and rescue him, Sally kept her brother alive with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

But Dave's fight to return home to the family ranch had just begun.

- - -

Dave spent nearly a year in a Portland hospital, a rehab center and skilled nursing facilities, all the time longing to be home.

But the ranch is remote, and it is difficult for him to get the 24-hour care he needs. He finally was able to come home in August.

"I'm just glad to be home," Dave said last weekend. It was typical understatement.

He jutted his chin against a rubber-tipped knob that he used to maneuver his wheelchair so he could gaze across the wheat farm his immigrant grandfather, Fred Rausch, settled in the 1930s.

The 1,600-acre ranch is off Alpine Lane, northeast of the town of Lexington. Motorists passing along Highway 207 this Christmas will recognize it as the place with the large, brilliant star.

The five-point star is 28 feet from point to point. It was crafted out of rebar by sons Stefan, 18, and Shane, 21, and their cousin's husband, Michael Armstrong. But the vision for the star came from Dave.

"We were coming back on the road one night, and I thought, 'Geesh, for miles out here there's nothing to see.' I thought it would be kind of nice to attach a star to the shop. It'd be something people could see for miles and miles," he said.

A star: A guiding light for the three wise men searching for the Christ child. A navigational tool for sailors trying to find their way home. A sign of promise for Dave.

- - -

During those long, dreary, despondent months in Portland, Dave clung to one hope -- returning to the land he once tilled.

Peering out the window at the newly planted fields last weekend, he remembered how the hot sun used to feel during those endless days of harvest. A multicolored lap blanket warms him now.

"We always had Thanksgiving and Christmas here when I was a kid. And several big dinners every year when we'd chop the heads off the chickens. My grandfather had chickens, pigs, a few milk cows. He had the best of everything," he recalled.

Those childhood Christmases were so much fun.

"I had 25 to 30 cousins and they'd all show up. We just had a blast, outside running around, getting into trouble, not much, but a little bit. There was always so much to do."

It was that sort of childhood that Dave tried to give his own sons. He always knew, as the only son, that the farm would be his one day.

Dave got a degree at Oregon State University. When he graduated, his father wasn't ready to retire, so Dave went to work for Sandpiper Farms in nearby Paterson.

Sandpiper Farms was an exciting place to work, he recalled. Large-scale circle irrigation was a new thing back in the late 1960s, and Dave was soaking in the new farming techniques.

In 1986, he and his wife, Patty, moved to the family's ranch. But the old home was in dire straits.

"I tore it down to the studs and rebuilt everything, except for the wood floors. We kept them," Dave said.

Throw rugs, scattered about, cover the gleaming hardwood floors that the rubber wheels on Dave's chair now glide easily across.

- - -

An addition was added onto the house this past year to provide a new bedroom to house Dave and his equipment. Volunteers designed and built it, led by contractor David Bothum of Hermiston.

"They've done a good job," Dave said, motoring his chair past a cupboard adorned with leaded-glass doors, around a corner and into a room that was once his office.

He stopped. Pictures of towheaded boys grasping fishing poles hung above the desk. That's Shane and Stefan at the Wallowa high lakes, Dave said. In another photo, Dave with an elk rack. Hunting, fishing, farming were the ways he used to fill his days.

No more.

Everything in the home addition is state of the art. A flat-screen television sits in an alcove above a propane fireplace, and at Dave's request Voorhes flipped a switch and lit the fire.

They have an easy relationship. Voorhes seems to anticipate his needs before Dave can ask for help. He is never bossy. They laugh often.

A ceiling track runs from the corner above the recliner, across the bed, around the room, through an extra-wide door that leads to an extra-large bathroom. Dave gets ready for his day riding a conveyor lift through the process of showering, shaving, brushing, flossing, dressing. All of which has to be done for him.

Four caretakers tend to him. Voorhes and Talia Armstrong, Dave's niece, are the day caregivers who rotate a four-days on, three-days off schedule. The night crew is Ashley Lindsay and Desiree White. All are trained so that if Dave's respirator were to quit, they could manually "bag" air into his lungs. They never are more than a few feet away.

"I've got four good women watching after me," Dave said.

- - -

Patty has returned to work at Wilcox Furniture Store in Hermiston. Her job provides the sorely needed medical insurance.

It's hard, Dave said, looking around and remembering what it felt like to pound a nail into a two-by-four to bait a hook, to grasp a shotgun, to sift a handful of soil, to tousle the boys' hair, to pull on his own cap and boots, or to embrace his beautiful wife.

"You never get over it, that's for sure," he said, referring to the loss of mobility and independence.

The only time Dave feels anything below his neck now is when he has muscle spasms. His right arm trembled spastically as Voorhes tried to pull his hand through a jacket sleeve.

"It feels good," Dave said, enjoying the momentary sensation. "It makes my spine tingle."

Voorhes opened the door and Dave wheeled his chair down a ramp, onto a paved roadway that leads to the shop, where Shane, Stefan and Michael were working on the star.

Being able to get out to the shop and watch his sons work gives Dave untold satisfaction.

"When you can see the work being done through your kids, that makes up for a lot," he said. "I don't get nearly as depressed here at home as I did in Portland. Just being at home makes a big difference."

Most importantly, it gives him a sense of purpose. Shane, who put aside his education at Oregon State University and returned to run the ranch after his father's accident, depends a lot on him.

"Every morning we sit down and talk about what needs to be done during the day," Shane said. "And he knows where everything in the shop is, so if I can't find it I can ask him and he tells me. He gives me a lot of advice."

And once a $4,000 voice-activated computer arrives, Shane thinks his dad will be able to contribute even more to the day-to-day ranch operations. Cell phones don't work in those areas, but a satellite will allow online access.

"I'll be able to search the Internet at lightning speed, to keep track of what's happening in the wheat market. I'll be able to research all the latest innovations in farm machinery. And I'll be able to search the Web sites for the latest developments in spinal cord injuries," Dave said.

- - -

Sheila Cozad, Dave's sister-in-law, also has made it her mission to follow the developments in quadriplegic treatment. She's the one who found the money to help pave the path to the shop.

The $6,000 road was paved with help from GOALS Inc., (Go Out And Live Successfully), a nonprofit foundation dedicated to assisting people with spinal cord injuries (www.goalsinc.net).
And she's the one who helped find the $14,000 exercise bike that should arrive any day now. Electrical impulses will pedal the bike for Dave and keep his muscles toned, Cozad explained.

"It's great to have Dave home. The voice-activiated computer and the bike are just some of the tools that are going to help him," she said.

Actor Christopher Reeves, who has a similar type of injury, now can breathe on his own for an hour a day. Dave hopes one day he will, too.

"I have all the equipment I need to get by. But being home with family and friends is all I really need," he said.

- - -

Shane and Stefan joined their dad in front of the Christmas tree for a photo.

"The tree came out of the mountains," Dave said with the pride of a man who once could trek a mountain trail. "Sally got it for us. It's a blue spruce. It's real bushy."

Stefan entered Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., in the fall. It's hard to be so far from his dad, he said, but he's enjoying spending his break at home.

"This Christmas is great compared to last year," Stefan said.

Dave agreed. "I was in rehab at Portland's Legacy Emanuel Hospital. I hated to have everybody come down there. I felt like I'd ruined Christmas. We're so used to the traditional Christmas at home. It sure wasn't the same."

This year, the boys' cousins will follow the star up Alpine Lane and join their Uncle Dave and Aunt Patty for another traditional holiday dinner. True, it won't be the same as in the past, but the family is back together.

Life almost seems normal again, "like we're getting back to where we were -- other than the tragedy," Stefan said.

"Things have worked out as good as they possibly can, considering," Shane added.

The days of despair have passed, Dave said.

"When I was in Portland, there were times when I had setbacks and I'd wonder if I'd really ever make it home. I felt it was going to be a long time, but I always hoped I was going to get here."

As they prepared to hang their father's star on the shop, Stefan and Shane paused.

"It's great having Christmas in our own home with him. I couldn't ask for anything more. I'm happy with what we've got," Stefan said.

"Me, too," Shane added, "me, too."

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