The Driven Life: Matthew Todd on his second chance at living

Matthew Todd and his daughter, Harper. (Courtesy Matthew Todd)

This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Race fan Matthew Todd, who made a miracle recovery from a traumatic brain injury suffered one year ago this week. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Matthew, can you start by taking us through your injury and how it all happened?

My life changed forever in April of 2018. I was holding a door for a lady and took a few steps away from the door after she was in and a displacement caught my right foot. It caused me to stumble. I just fell down to the right — I put my right arm out, my elbow, to catch myself as I was falling forward — and something caught the right side of my head.

On the way down, instead of just having a bump on my head, the object that caught my head was in the perfect spot and it tore the cranial artery that we all have on the right side of our head. It ruptured the artery.

I remember falling. I remember holding the door and taking a few steps. Everybody slips and falls from time to time, I guess. But it’s usually as not as tragic as this was. It’s injured me for the rest of my life.

But I can say — in addition to being the worst injury I’ve ever had — outside of having my daughter, Harper Ruth, this is the greatest blessing God has ever given me. That brings us to the reason why we’re having a conversation today.

What happened next? I assume you were immediately transported to the hospital?

They gave me my first helicopter ride and unfortunately I don’t remember a darn thing about it. I’d never been on a helicopter before, but I was that day. They got me into Durham at Duke University Medical Center and operated on me immediately. But I was incapacitated from the time I fell and made contact with the displacement that tore my artery. I was put on life support.

The procedure was supposed to last two hours. About 90 minutes into it, representatives met with my mother and had her sign some paperwork. They informed her that “From the neck down, your son is very healthy. He has healthy organs.” They said, “He is an organ donor, right?” She said, “He has the heart on his license. He is an organ donor.” They said, “Great. We can use his organs and the other form you signed is to give you the rights to his body.”

That statement there, when I would share this with my friends and family, that’s something that would make me cry. I would get emotional right there. I can’t imagine what my mom went through in that moment.

Statistically, with this injury, the large majority do not live. And if they do live, they have extreme disability for the rest of their life as far as their bodily function, cognitive skills, motor skills — the works. And I was very fortunate.

But they were still operating on me. They got through the procedure. God blessed me with the fact my brain did not swell. They were very worried about the 12 hours immediately following the cranial surgery. They opened up the right side of my head. I had 93 staples in my head. And my brain didn’t swell, so they were able to put me in a private room in the ICU. They estimated I’d be there in the ICU anywhere from 30 days to several weeks. Then I’d go to another floor in the hospital and remain there for the foreseeable future.

Matthew Todd had staples in his head to close up his skull after doctors operated to repair his artery. (Courtesy Matthew Todd)

During this time, you told me you are absolutely positive you experienced a taste of the afterlife. And unfortunately we don’t have enough time to go into all of it today, but you described being on a vessel, experiencing vivid colors you’ve never seen in real life and seeing loved ones who had passed away.

I went straight into an area of complete peace. I was in no pain. I was not bothered by anything, just an unconditional euphoria of peacefulness. I’ve never been through a near-death experience, but this was something that was just incredible to me.

It takes 40 to 45 minutes to tell the entire story, but I saw relatives, I saw friends, they were healthy and happy and they looked better than I ever saw them here.

And then I’m walking through these doors into a light. There’s no sense of falling, fear, nothing. And as soon as I go through that light, I’m sitting straight up in my bed at the hospital. Like a bolt of lightning through my back. It felt like the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker corps had all hit me at once.

You said it was about three days from the time of the accident to the time you woke up. I know they told your family there was a chance you’d never to be able to walk or talk, and if you did, it would be weeks or months before you spoke with any coherency once you came out of your coma. And so there were a lot of people around when you suddenly came to.

The news was bad. Everybody literally at that time was waiting until I was going to pass away. Like maybe a day or two and there’s going to be a funeral.

I woke up. There was a lot of people coming in and checking me or seeing  me. All I was doing was talking to family and friends the best I could. I couldn’t remember anything for sure. At that time, I remembered my daughter and my dog, Blue.

Over time, things started coming back to me, but not in great detail. But it didn’t matter. I was completely in an emotion of subtle happiness. I had been through a traumatic brain injury and I was just peaceful at that time. My brain was not flowing, it was not working properly.

Matthew Todd woke up and was able to speak after only three days in a coma. He was sent home within a week after the accident. (Courtesy Matthew Todd)

You mentioned they sent you home shockingly early — less than a week after the accident — because you were able to pass some cognitive tests. But obviously you had a lot of restrictions on what you could do as you were in the very early processes of recovery.

I got back home on a Monday afternoon. I laid down on the bed in my room and after about 10 minutes of laying there, I had no idea where I was. I had no idea what house I was in. I had no idea it was my house. That’s how far away I was from everything until my cognitive function allowed me to start processing memories.

Still to this day, I look at pictures of my daughter over the course of her five years and wonder when she took her first steps, what were her first words. Those are things I can’t nail down right now.

I have very good detail on some things. I’ve been reliving the days in the hospital often, but there’s lots of things over the course of my 37 years I can’t recall in detail. I rely on my family and friends to help piece me in, and also going to a place and looking around.

The reason I mentioned the house and not remembering was all of my signed diecasts. I started collecting diecasts several years ago — not a lot of them — but I enjoyed the driver to sign it in silver on the windshield. My first Father’s Day gift was a Jeff Gordon signed Gen 7 car that I got. NASCAR is an absolute wonderful sport in general.

I don’t recall watching television that week. I don’t recall doing much of anything. I had no sense of hunger. I could not process hot and cold temperatures. That following Saturday, I cut on my television. The TV was on, and I go to turn a channel and the DVR was recording.

The first question is, “What’s a DVR?” and “What is this?” Mom said, “Matthew, that’s a race.” I’m like, “Well what race is it?” She’s like, “That’s a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.” And they were racing as I recall at Richmond. I’m not 100 percent, but I believe they were in Richmond. And I didn’t even know I was looking at a NASCAR race. But Mom explained to me I was a large fan of the sport and I have been since I was 3 years old.

So you had no idea you were a NASCAR fan?

I had no idea what I liked and didn’t like. Down to food, music, sports, hobbies — all that stuff.

The NASCAR stuff, through following that sport, that was able to bring me a lot of happiness and the memories that came back to me. I had time on my hands, and I enjoyed watching the shows, the races and everything I could about it.

But it also started waking up the memories I had in that particular thing I enjoyed — racing. Constantly you read a name or a car, number, team, whatever it may be. It just wakes something up.

Every race I’ve been to, I can’t remember them all now. I used to be able to. I used to be able to tell you who won the races. Some I can, some I can’t. The details of specific memories come back in full force or I’m only going to get a piece of them or none at all.

It’s hard to picture that. But it sounds like NASCAR essentially played a role in helping you retrieve those memories.

Imagine the hard drive of your computer being wiped clean and then all the memories flowing back in. Sometimes early on, it was very slow and then it picked up very quickly to where every day, I could be doing anything and a memory from a random time in my life will come back to me.

As far as the racing, I went through everything in my house. I remember seeing the yellow bib that had a No. 18 on it. That brought back the memory of visiting Joe Gibbs Racing several years ago. I had gotten a bib for my daughter, Harper. Of course, she loves M&Ms. Whenever a race is on, she’s always looking for that No. 18.

I cannot tell you how much happiness it brings me when a memory comes back in something I have a great and positive passion about. One of the best memories that has come back to me was I was looking at the No. 24, but I was seeing the name “William Byron” under it. And I was like, “That doesn’t match to me. This is not what I’m recalling.” And then Jeff Gordon’s name — I don’t know if I read it or what — but that comes along, I pull out the diecast and see, “OK, that was Jeff Gordon’s car.” I piece together that he’s retired. And then — bam! — the first race I ever went to comes to mind, and that was the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 (which was Gordon’s first win).

Looking at the diecast, following (NASCAR reporters), things build up the more time you spend on it. Just like the exercises I have to do for my pathologist.

Wow, that’s so cool. Well I want to shift gears a bit here and talk about what perspective you’ve gained from this experience and having a second chance at life. One of the things I’ve noticed from following your tweets is you often tweet about the word “Real” and capitalize the R. Why is that?

“Real” is one of the most important words I have. Real people, real knowledge, real experiences. That’s what matters. Fake stuff is a waste of our time. People who are not honest are a waste of our time. Enjoying a sunset or a sunrise, that’s a real experience. I cling to what is real.

Back when this happened, I could not read a book or follow a movie because I couldn’t remember page to page what was going on. In a movie, I’d watch it begin and then 20 or 30 minutes later, I couldn’t follow the course of the story being told on the screen. But I’ve healed through that.

You mentioned it bothers you when people judge others, which is something you said you no longer do after the accident. 

Back when this happened, your car — how new or old it is — didn’t matter. Your house — how big or small it is — didn’t matter. Your clothes — how stylish or not stylish they are — didn’t matter. Your job didn’t matter. I just worried if people were healthy and happy.

The judgment of where someone eats or sleeps or how they earn their living, none of that at all mattered to me. And to this day, I care about someone’s health and happiness — I do not look at the stature of a person by the material things they have or the amount of money they have. I only care if they’re healthy and happy.

Going to a restaurant, I’ll never ever again go to a restaurant again and worry about, “I’ve got to get that piece of prime rib” or “I’ve got to eat the chicken soft tacos here.” All I care about is who I am with and what kind of real experience or real conversation or real enjoyment we’re going to have.

You also mentioned before the accident, you were as guilty as the rest of us as speeding through life and not taking the chance to enjoy it. I see from your tweets now that you really take the time to savor life’s small moments, even watching rain hitting the driveway.

I used to go 100 miles an hour and get everything I could get done and pack the most into every single day. And now that I’ve had this time to be forced to slow down, stop, pay attention to what’s going on around you, the beauty of the world around us is just amazing to me.

I was sitting in a garage and watching raindrops fall on a concrete driveway that I’ve known most of my life and I had never noticed the reflection of the sunshine off the raindrops when they hit the ground. They looked like diamonds dancing. I would sit outside for several hours and listen to the birds chirp, feel the breeze, watch the sun come up. Just absorb every bit of the natural beauty this world provides us. Seeing a good sunset, looking at the stars, seeing the moon — those things put me in a condition of awe. I’m in awe over those things.

Stuff that when you’re busy day to day, you’re working, you’re going here, there,  you’re raising a child, you’re doing the best you can — you don’t stop. You know the old saying “Stop and smell the roses.” I encourage everybody to just appreciate having air to breathe, food to eat, clothes to wear, a car to drive, a job to go to. Or if they’re retired or unable to work, make something of the time you have.

I walk around today knowing the afterlife, to me, heaven is very real, but we have to make the most of our time here. We’re all on a clock. We don’t know when that clock is going to stop and we do not control it. So it’s better to not waste your brain energy and be uptight, mean, mad all the time. It’s better to be kind — and above that honest, genuine, real.

If you don’t like something, you don’t like something. If somebody you care about wants to know why you don’t like something, feel free to tell them. Do what makes you happy. That’s not a get out of jail free card to do whatever you want, but be kind. If you like double cheeseburgers, eat double cheeseburgers. Don’t eat them to the point where you’re going to gain too much weight and have a heart attack, but enjoy it. Somebody likes the hot dogs at Martinsville? Gobble them up. Enjoy the hot dogs at Martinsville.

Speaking of Martinsville and going back to racing for a moment, you said you no longer have a favorite driver and never will again. Not because you don’t like the drivers, but you said your appreciation for what they do dwarfs any rooting interest. Do I have that correct?

I can appreciate what these people did in that industry that brought happiness to millions of fans. That’s what it all boils down to, right? Why do people enjoy playing golf or computer games or cooking? They do it for happiness. They do it for solitude. They do it to slow their mind down and enjoy some peace.

That’s a good reminder for those of us who work in NASCAR as to what it brings people. On another note, you said a big positive of Twitter was helping to rediscover your interest in racing. But it also bothers you after your experience.

I’m very saddened by the fact it seems social media has become a cesspool of opinions. And we all have those opinions. But just because someone’s opinion is different than yours doesn’t make them a bad person. It doesn’t mean the world is going to end. It just means they think a different way than you do about one particular topic.

You go to a restaurant. I might order the hot dog. You might order the cheeseburger. Guess what? We’re of a differing opinion about the menu. But we’re still going to enjoy ourselves and have a great conversation.

On a final note here, if you could give people advice on one thing they could do differently to appreciate life a little more in light of your experience, what would it be?

You don’t wake up every day and look at every single problem or issue a person may have. Just focus on the small things you can do. Work on the small things, and then once you do enough of those, you may see a big change in the large things. You’ve got to keep your focus on what’s important. But enjoy what you like to enjoy and be respectful of someone enjoying something that might be different from you. 

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