In the summer of 2015, 25-year old Matthew Eaker was in a tragic motorcycle accident. Over the next few years, he received 23 surgeries.

News | 6 months ago

With Amputation on the Horizon, Innovative Treatments Saved Matthew's Leg

In the summer of 2015, 25-year old Matthew Eaker was in a tragic motorcycle accident. Over the next few years, he received 23 surgeries. After a year, his right leg wasn’t functional and amputation was on the agenda. However, Matthew wanted to try other avenues. In 2016, he was referred to Dr. Joseph Hsu at Carolinas Medical Center. By August 2018, he was walking on both his legs with just a crutch. This is his amazing story of reliance, grit, and the power of the human will.

On June 7, 2015, 25-year old Matthew Eaker was enjoying a motorcycle ride when a distracted driver collided into him. After being raced to the nearest hospital in the Chattanooga area, Matthew had already lost 6 inches of his right tibia, or lower leg bone. At the hospital, he underwent his  first surgery — which ultimately saved his life. This intensive surgery lasted over 12 hours, but consequently resulted in a month-long coma. This was just the start of his long recovery which consisted of 23 surgeries over the course of the next few years.

Though Matthew initially made progress after his coma, he endured a series of complications that made a leg amputation a real possibility. To make a last effort at salvaging the limb, Matthew was eventually referred to Joseph Hsu, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at Atrium Health’s Musculoskeletal Institute, who conducted the final bone and tissue correction surgeries.

This is a story of Matthew’s incredible recovery that required an immense amount of determination, grit, and mental stamina. With the support of family, and the care of Dr. Hsu and his care teams, Matthew was able to salvage his leg.

“Is there another way?”

Every patient’s treatment journey is unique. In the case of Matthew, he received life-saving procedures from another hospital right after the accident in Tennessee. He went through the typical procedures that patients with leg trauma get, which unfortunately led to further complications.

“My case was so extreme that a lot of people in my area were not experienced enough to deal with it,” says Matthew. “They were urging me to amputate. But I didn’t want that.”

Looking at alternative options, Matthew sought referrals and ultimately went to North Carolina to seek expert care from Dr. Hsu and the teams at Atrium Health. Dr. Hsu’s unique background in working with trauma patients in the military made him the most viable answer to Matthew’s plea for an alternative.

“Before he came to me, he had surgery done by good surgeons, but there was a series of complications that led to a significant bone and soft tissue defect. But more challenging than that, the skin scarred into the bone gap — which is called a secondary intention granulation in medical terms— that means there was no soft tissue coverage besides the scar at the bottom half of Matthew’s leg,” says Dr. Hsu.

After meeting with Dr. Hsu and learning about his new options, Matthew was on-board — even if he needed an 8-hour ride for each surgery and checkup. These procedures would generate new bone by gradual distraction to Matthew’s leg and bend his bone to help close the wound in his right leg.

“I was very skeptical and felt like I was at a loss because everyone couldn’t provide me a solution until I met Dr. Hsu,” said Matthew.

New horizons

Under the care of Dr. Hsu, his primary nurse Andrea Gail, RN, and the rest of his care team, Matthew got his first surgery on February 11, 2016, with his full recovery at Atrium Health occurring over the course of the next 18 months.

Because Matthew’s bone protruded and there was a skin gap, Dr. Hsu had to remove the exposed bone, remove the damaged skin, and then bend his leg 60 degrees to close the wound. A temporary frame was also placed on the leg for support, correction, and to grow the missing bone.

Dr. Hsu made it clear to give Matthew a full disclosure before the surgery. He would be living with a curved leg for months until the bone would slowly straighten. Only through bending the leg this much would Dr. Hsu have a chance at closing the wound and having the skin properly heal.

Matthew was on-board for the surgery. In May 2016, the procedure was done, but he had to be careful for the next few months — 7 to be exact— while the leg and wound corrected itself. During this time he used a wheelchair and crutches.

As his primary nurse, Andrea also played a significant role in his treatment and recovery. Acting as the liaison between patient and doctor, she made phone calls, scheduled appointments and tests, gave instructions for care, and relayed information accordingly. Andrea also helped Matthew with his lodging following his surgeries. Matthew can’t say enough about how well Andrea attended to his needs.

“For every nurse, I could not find one complaint and I give them all great ratings. All were very polite and very patient,” says Matthew. “If I needed to get in touch with Dr. Hsu, I’d call Andrea and she’d find a way to make it happen. She’s fantastic.”

Andrea also thought highly of Matthew’s caliber as a patient.

“I loved watching his progression toward achieving a normal life,” she reflects. “When he first came to the office as a consult, his lower leg was literally curved. By the time he was released, the leg was straight and he was walking!”

About a year after the first surgery conducted at Atrium Health, on March 21, 2017, Dr. Hsu took the frame off Matthew’s leg and put on an antibiotic coated cement nail implant. This procedure is called a “secondary nailing “ or “ docking procedure” culminates the long process of bone transport which is moving one part of the tibia, or leg bone, to generate new bone to eventually heal to another piece of bone. From there, it was a matter of rehab, getting his range of motion back, and waiting for everything to heal.

Three months later, in June 2017, X-ray images showed significant healing. There were no signs of infection either. By Matthew’s August 2018 checkup, his leg grew even stronger.

Right now, Matthew is walking with a single crutch. Every day, his strength is coming back. His body is recovering from the significant muscle damage sustained, and each day more progress is made.

“This was a huge team effort. The reality is that it’s people like him that motivate us to keep going and invite more patients in and take on these huge reconstructions,” says Dr. Hsu. “What he doesn’t realize is that their motivation and reliance and perseverance does more for us than we possibly could have done for them.”

90% patient effort, 10% treatment

When it came to recovery, the path was long. Matthew experienced over three years of surgeries and a test of physical endurance as well as a mental one. Matthew credits a good part of his recovery to the support he had from family and friends.

During the entire process, Matthew’s father was by his side. His sister and friends were also there as sources of support. Andrea says that a close network is critical to boosting the patient’s morale, “Support is extremely important… I saw him frequently with his biggest supporter — his father.”

Dr. Hsu also emphasized the importance of a survivor’s mindset during recovery,

“You can take the same injury and same settings but without that same moral toughness and support from family, it doesn’t work — it absolutely doesn't work. The effort was 90% Matthew and his father and 10% the care team,” says Dr. Hsu. “His grit, his will to overcome huge hurdles to not only salvage his limb but have a good quality of life — that fills your cup as a physician.”

How does Matthew take all this? By living with this advice:

“Try not to focus on where you’re going but where you are at. If you think about the future, it will be discouraging. Take it one day at a time.”

To find more information about the award-winning, world-class care and medical services we provide, visit Atrium Health’s Global Healthcare Services.