When Matt Freitas walked into TA Fitness, a warrior gym in Weymouth, Massachusetts, with his mother and a doctor’s note, co-owner Dave Cavanagh wasn’t sure what to expect. Then he thought, “If he’s coming into the gym with one leg, he must know what he can and can’t do.”
It’s seems as if the 15-year-old ninja warrior competitor and lacrosse goalie can do just about anything. He’s a straight-A student, Boy Scout, wrestler and local celebrity.
“Everyone knows Matt,” says Jenny Lawler, co-owner of TA Fitness. “I’ve seen younger kids whisper to their parents, ‘Is that Matt Freitas?’”
Last year, Matt, who loves the television series “American Ninja Warrior,” persuaded a friend to accompany him to the gym. The friend never returned. Matt works out there as often as he can fit into his jam-packed schedule. He’s joined the staff and often helps out with kids’ parties on weekends.
It is hard to miss Matt’s lanky 6’2” frame, easy grin and quirky sense of humor. Most of all, there’s the quiet determination that comes from facing an obstacle far tougher than any he’ll encounter on a warrior course.
One month before his 12th birthday, Matt was involved in a head-on car crash in Maine. His right foot was trapped under the front passenger seat and nearly severed. He was rushed to Maine Medical Center and underwent a below-the-knee amputation.
Matt’s parents Melissa and Scott lobbied to have their son transferred to Boston Children’s Hospital. “We were very happy with the care Matt received at Maine Medical, but we wanted Matt at Boston Children’s not only because it was closer to home, but also because it’s Boston Children’s. When he was transferred one week after the accident, it was a gift.”
Seventy visitors flooded Matt’s room the weekend he was transferred. While Matt welcomed the company, he set his sights on other priorities.
He wanted to get back to the lacrosse field.
Matt’s return to the lacrosse field
“Every time I saw Matt, he was wearing a different lacrosse jersey or shorts. It was an indication of Matt’s drive and resilience,” recalls Dr. Benjamin Shore, an orthopedic surgeon in the Boston Children’s Orthopedic Center.
There were a few hurdles standing between Matt and his goal. He needed a clear head. The morphine used to manage his pain interfered with his focus.
“Matt was very motivated to return to his normal life, and part of that was getting off of the opioids initially prescribed to manage his pain. We try to use non-opioid methods as much as possible,” explains Dr. Christine Greco of the Boston Children’s Pain Treatment Services.
Greco worked with Matt to wean him off of the opioid medications, using physical therapy to help de-sensitize the teen as well cognitive behavioral strategies, like progressive muscle relaxation and biofeedback.
With his pain under control, Matt was released from Boston Children’s five days after he was admitted.
However, Matt’s amputation site did not heal well, and he needed outpatient dressing changes, debridement and wound care.
“It was hard for Matt to see his wound,” says Shore. Every week, Shore would pile pillows between Matt and his knee, so he couldn’t see the wound. Each time Matt visited, Shore removed another pillow, so Matt could see more of his leg and come to terms with the amputation.
“That was our first connection. He got more comfortable with the wound during each visit, and we developed a relationship,” says Shore.
“Dr. Shore’s my boy,” jokes Matt.
“Once he could look at his leg, it was like a switch flipped, and he accepted his disability,” says Shore.
Less than two months after the accident, Matt started managing his pain with Motrin.
Four months after the accident, Matt’s wound healed completely, and he was fitted for his first prosthetic.
He returned to the lacrosse field four days later.
“That’s typical Matt,” says Shore, adding that most kids excel once they are fitted with a prosthetic. Matt’s prosthetist John Zakrzewski at oandpcenters.com is another key player on Matt’s care team.
A good prosthetic fit can take a lot of tweaking and troubleshooting. Matt, for example, reported different hot spots when he starting running on the new leg. Zakrzewski’s open-door policy and close collaboration with Shore have helped Matt stay as active as he likes.
“Dr. Shore and John work together closely to ensure that whenever Matt outgrows his leg, he can quickly get into a new one. And as a teenage boy who has grown 14 inches in three years, he outgrows them pretty quickly,” says Melissa.
Matt’s seemingly non-stop growth has fueled an ongoing doctor-patient bet. Shore is certain Matt has stopped growing, but Matt insists he has not yet topped out.
Their bond goes beyond a shared love of sports and a quirky sense of humor. “Dr. Shore doesn’t talk to me like I’m a patient or a kid. He talks to me like I’m a friend. He’s not uncomfortable talking about my leg and laughing at my leg jokes,” says Matt, who has a zillion leg jokes and brags about telling a record-breaking 216 jokes during a one-week camping trip.
Matt’s long-term goal is to play Division-1 lacrosse in college, and he appears to be well on his way, securing a spot on the varsity squad at Catholic Memorial High School as a freshman.
While his on-field prowess is impressive, Matt’s most memorable feats may be off the field … as a recruiter and mentor.
Eight months after Matt’s accident, he learned about another boy who had lost his leg in a boating accident. Matt visited the boy in the hospital, and they became fast friends. “After the visit, he decided to be a lacrosse goalie like Matt,” says Melissa.
And the younger kids at TA Fitness are similarly awed by him.
“The younger kids see Matt as a celebrity,” says Jenny. “To us, he’s the kid who is always here and always working really hard. He motivates everyone else in the gym. They know things can be a little harder for Matt. It pushes them when they see him working as hard as he does.”
Between studying, working out and scouting, Matt has found time to think about his next goal — driving. Melissa isn’t sure how driving will work with Matt’s prosthetic, but mother, son and the whole Freitas family are ready to take on whatever obstacles life puts in their way.
“Whether it’s driving or D-1 lacrosse, the sky is the limit for Matt. Anything is possible for him,” predicts Shore.
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