For Matt Small it was to be a joyful Christmas and a reunion in Ireland with his family, but falling critically ill with sepsis he’s now fighting for his young life in a Dublin hospital.
“His heart rate is too fast, his blood pressure is too high, and he’s still on a ventilator,” said his mother, Sandra, in a call Monday morning.
The Smalls, of the Quincy Hollow section of Levittown, are living a nightmare, hopeful but still on edge about Matt, a 2020 graduate of Bucks County Technical High School.
At one point, he was so ill that doctors raised the possibility that he could need a heart transplant to survive, said his mother.
The Smalls, Sandra, her husband, Falls police Det. Greg Small, Matt and their younger son, Mark, arrived in Dublin just before Christmas Day. They traveled to Sandra’s mother’s house in County Mayo, where they’d spend the week celebrating. They planned to return Jan. 2.
But a bug was going around. Greg got it first, then Sandra. They were sore, achy and tired. Greg thought he was coming down with a cold, Sandra said. Then a day later she felt the same way, and spent the day in bed.
Both rallied, as Matt went out with his cousin to celebrate their January birthdays. He returned late.
“It was raining and he’d walked home from town, so he got out of his wet clothes and hopped into bed,” she said.
The next day he was feeling poorly. Aches and chills.
“I told Matthew, ‘You got whatever we got,’” she said.
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Friday Dec. 30, he seemed to improve, but Matt decided not to go out to dinner with the family. Instead, he stayed home warming himself by the fire. He was asleep when they returned.
A couple of hours later, things turned bad, she said.
“He came to me late and said, ‘Mom, I can’t breathe.’”
“I can’t catch my breath,” he told her.
It was midnight. She drove him to a hospital emergency room in Castlebar 30 minutes away. Twenty people were ahead of them. She pleaded with the staff for someone to check Matt. An hour later, they still waited.
“His lips were blue and his fingertips were turning purple,” she said.
She went to a nurse and said, “We’re gonna be doing CPR on him on the floor soon if somebody doesn’t come and check him.”
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They took him back right away. Things deteriorated.
“He couldn’t talk. I had to answer all of their questions for him,” she said.
Matt’s blood oxygen was so low it triggered a staff emergency response.
“Two minutes later I had two doctors and three nurses rushing into the room, then rushing him to a resuscitation room. After that there were blood tests and hooking him up to machines,” she said.
He was taken to an intensive care unit.
“I thought, well, they’ll put him on antibiotics for 48 hours and we’ll just have to change our flight plans from Monday to Tuesday,” she said.
Then a shock.
“Within a half hour, they came out to me and said they were putting him on a ventilator,” she said.
His lungs were not absorbing enough oxygen. Her husband and younger son, Mark, arrived. Ten minutes later Matt was on a ventilator. It was New Year’s Eve. They haven’t heard him speak since.
Then came a stunning update from the doctors. He was in complete organ failure. They were putting him on a dialysis machine.
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“They told us he had only hours,” she said. “He wasn’t pulling enough oxygen. They described his lungs as like your kitchen sponge when it’s soaked with water and can’t absorb any more. They said that was Matthew’s lungs with infection. The oxygen couldn’t get through.”
Matt was suffocating.
“It was minute to minute, hour to hour,” she said.
All they could do was wait.
“For the next ten days, I didn’t know if I would be bringing my son home in a wheelchair or in a coffin,” Sandra said.
Pneumonia was the first diagnosis, and it crashed his immune system. Then strep invaded. That allowed other infections in. Doctors have been playing whack-a-mole with one infection after another while trying to keep his vitals stable. Tests revealed small pockets of pus throughout his body, as his beleaguered immune system tries to fight more infections, Sandra said.
He’s been back and forth between hospitals in Castlebar and Dublin. COVID was ruled out early, as was the flu. He’d had his one-and-done COVID shot and a booster last year. He’d gotten his flu shot for work.
“He did everything he was supposed to do,” his mother said.
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It’s a roller coaster. Early on, Matt went into organ failure and was put on dialysis. There was discussion of a heart transplant. Then he improved for a stretch of days. The ventilator came out last week and he came off dialysis. Then his vitals tanked, and it was back to the beginning, ventilator and trach. He’s been heavily sedated since.
“One of the doctors came to me and said, ‘I know this sounds heartless, but your son’s an anomaly. That he’s 20 years of age, he’s in perfect body shape and health, and this literally has knocked him on his (tail). In the medical field, we’re all going to learn from this. As of today, he is listed as the sickest person in Ireland, with his infection levels and treatments to keep him alive.’”
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On Saturday Jan. 7, she returned to her mother’s house. She couldn’t eat or sleep or drink. She walked around the property.
“I kept thinking should I have taken him to the hospital sooner when he came down with it? Would that have made a difference? But we had the bug and got over it, and we thought that’s all it was,” she said.
In the house, she went to the bed where Matt had slept. His things were where he left them. His things were as he left them.
“I put on his jacket, and his wool hat. It had all his hair and beard oils that I usually can’t stand, but I was really sucking them in so I could remember, and I thought what was I to do?”
She picked up her phone and posted to social media pleading for prayers for her son.
“Because I need to bring him home healthy,” she said.
Within an hour she was inundated with responses. One of Matt’s high school friends posted to him, “You have half the Catholic Church praying for you.”
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The next day, Matt’s numbers improved.
“There is power in prayer,” Sandra said. “The doctors went from talking that he had hours, and now they are talking about what to expect months down the line.”
It’s still touch and go. There are no guarantees. But his youth and gym fitness are his biggest assets, the doctors have told the Smalls. He would not survive a flight home at this time, Sandra said.
A neighbor launched a GoFundMe page seeking $50,000. Matt remains in Dublin, in an ICU, and while Ireland has socialized medicine, “it’s only to a point,” Sandra said.
Not only will there be medical bills, and physical therapy (“He will spend month learning how to walk again,” Sandra said) but living expenses are big. Renting a car in Ireland, due to outrageous insurance costs, can run tens of thousands of dollars (or euros, depending on how you figure it).
Matt went to Queen of the Universe school in Middletown. He’s an Eagle Scout from Troop 82 at Our Lady of Grace in Penndel. His project was building fire cooking pits at the Levittown-Fairless Hills Rescue Squad in memory of a member who loved to barbecue for the crew.
He went to Tech, then to Bucks County Community College where, last month, he received his associates degree in graphic design. He works in Bristol as a designer. When you see a U-Haul truck in Lower Bucks, think of him, because he designs their logos. He loves riding his Harley Dyna.
Through the ordeal, he recognizes his mother’s voice.
“Can you squeeze my hand,” she asks him bedside. He squeezes.
“He can hear me,” she said.
Matt turned 21 on Monday. A bit of good news came, Sandra said.
The nurses decorated his hospital room with balloons and well-wishes.
“The nurse told me she went to him this morning and said, ‘Good morning, Matthew, I believe it’s your birthday —– Happy Birthday!’ And she said he smiled.”
JD Mullane can be reached at 215-949-5745 or at [email protected].