Amazing Things: Matt Long
After a devastating bike accident, this firefighter and triathlete battled back one step at a time.
The 2005 New York City transit strike was a major inconvenience for the millions who rely on public transportation to get to work.
It also nearly killed Matt Long.
On Dec. 22, 2005, the then-39-year-old firefighter put on multiple layers and a ski mask to protect himself from the 28-degree chill and set off on his bike up Third Avenue. The strike had interrupted his normal commute. Normally, he would drive from his midtown apartment to Randall’s Island, where the FDNY has its training center, but the strike resulted in travel restrictions below 96th Street. It was his second-to-last day of his yearlong assignment at the facility, where he helped train recruits in exercises such as running up and down stairs with 100 pounds strapped to their backs.
But minutes into his ride, Matt was struck by a 20-ton bus making an illegal turn onto East 52nd Street. The impact sucked him underneath. By the time the bus came to a stop, Matt and his bike were crumpled by the right axle. When detectives from NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit arrived, they saw that he had been speared by his handlebars, his abdomen essentially torn open. As he lay bleeding, a crew of firefighters and police officers lifted the front of the bus with a hydraulic jack, allowing other responders to saw away the handlebars from his stomach.
He was rushed to NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, the closest hospital. Matt’s left tibia and femur were fractured, along with his foot, shoulder and hip. His pelvis was crushed, his rectum was torn, and his stomach was perforated. He also was in danger of bleeding to death.
His trauma surgeon, Dr. Soumitra R. Eachempati, first saw Matt in the operating room. “There was a lot of commotion, and I could tell he was in a life-or-death situation,” says Dr. Eachempati, now the director of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “He was torn open from his tailbone to near his belly button.”
Dr. Eachempati and orthopedic surgeon, the late Dr. Dean Lorich, immediately worked to plug torn arteries, using some 68 units of blood to replace the gallons lost. “When Matt’s parents asked me what his chance of survival was, I said it was around 1 percent based on people in similar situations, but it could have been even less than that,” Dr. Eachempati says.
Matt was put in a medically induced coma as the team spent weeks performing multiple surgeries to repair his bones and muscles. One surgery involved placing a titanium rod through his left leg to support his crushed femur and tibia. Another involved inserting metal screws into his left foot to keep the shattered bones in place. Multiple torn abdominal wall muscles needed repair.
Matt says he has no memory of the accident. “When I woke up, my first thought was, where am I, what happened?” he recalls. “The doctors told me about the accident and explained I wasn’t going anywhere for a while.”
By the time he left the hospital five months later, Matt was in a wheelchair and had lost 50 pounds. He had endured 40 operations. He had a colostomy bag, a titanium rod through his pelvis, and skin and muscle grafts. One leg was a few inches shorter than the other. His body essentially held together with pins and screws, he would need to learn how to walk again, and was looking at seemingly interminable physical therapy.
Although lucky to be alive, Matt had a difficult time accepting his new normal and sank into depression. The firefighter, who was on duty on 9/11, had been an elite athlete, competing in one Ironman and more than 30 triathlons. He had run the New York City Marathon two months before his accident, and his 3:13:59 time qualified him for the exclusive Boston Marathon. After being released from the hospital, he moved back into his apartment with his brother Eddie, his new roommate and caregiver. Once a popular bachelor with an active social life, Matt now spent most of his days holed up in his apartment, connecting with just a few friends.
His turning point came about six months after he left the hospital, thanks to a no-nonsense approach from his parents and eight siblings, who refused to let him wallow in self-pity. Or as Matt puts it, “They knew they could take the gloves off when dealing with me. One time I told my mom and dad I wish they prayed for me to die rather than live. At that point, my mom said, ‘Enough is enough!’ Instead of a hug, she told me to get my act together.”
Spurred by his mom’s tough love, Matt set a goal of once again tackling the New York City Marathon. He wasn’t sure how long it would take to train for it, but he was determined to make it happen. “A lightbulb just went off inside me,” he says. “I’m not afraid of physical challenges. I wanted to do something special, and I didn’t want the bus accident to be an excuse for not doing it.”
Matt launched an aggressive rehabilitation routine, in which he had to learn to walk before he could start to run again. The task was nothing short of monumental, considering he had crushed toes and an uneven gait. Fighting through pain, he did rehab three days a week at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and hired an additional therapist to come to his apartment for extra sessions. He relied on a trainer to help him use the weight machines at his local gym. For intensive, multi-day rehab sessions, he traveled to Arizona, where he learned to swim again, and later spent four months with a local running specialist.
In 2008, under overcast skies and with temperatures in the mid-40s, Matt completed the New York City Marathon in 7 hours, 21 minutes, with his family, friends and surgeons crisscrossing the five boroughs to cheer him on at each leg of the race. The following year, he completed an Ironman in just under 17 hours.
Looking back, Dr. Eachempati says that when he was working on Matt, his priority was to save his life. He says he couldn’t imagine what was in store for Matt down the road. “Sure, I could contemplate him being alive, but I couldn’t imagine he would run or even be able to walk easily again because of his leg injury.” Dr. Eachempati credits a large part of Matt’s astonishing recovery to his superb level of fitness. “He’s a guy who would do triathlons. His body is used to prolonged stress.”
Today, Matt is thriving personally and professionally. His memoir, The Long Run, was published in 2011. He is in talks to develop the book into a movie. Matt also spends his time on the I Will Foundation, a nonprofit he launched in 2008 that supports people in managing or overcoming challenges related to their traumatic injuries or life-altering illnesses. The foundation’s many ambassadors include professional athletes, coaches and trainers who work with injured patients to help them regain function and fitness.
Matt also works as a motivational speaker, presenting his message of hope and perseverance in overcoming life-altering illness or traumatic injury to audiences across the country.
“If I’m speaking to an audience of 200 or 500 people, and I connect to one person, that is why I’m doing this,” he says. In his speeches, he talks about his accident but focuses on the “power of the human spirit. If you believe in yourself, you can make it happen. Life can be hard. If there is a roadblock, accept it and think of a way around it.”
He also found love, marrying Mary Boyle in 2011, just blocks from the site of his accident. The couple has a daughter, 4, and Matt is stepfather to Boyle’s two daughters, ages 11 and 13.
Fitness is a major part of Matt’s life, despite his chronic pain. He works out six days a week, and was named one of Men’s Fitness 25 Fittest Men in the World in 2010, along with the likes of Kobe Bryant, Roger Federer and Cristiano Ronaldo, and frequently goes on 50-mile bike rides. Still, because of his uneven gait, long days on his feet leave him exhausted. He also has limited feeling in his abdominal muscles.
He recently became a franchise owner of Orangetheory Fitness, which focuses on heart rate to help clients achieve their fitness goals. Through it all, his family has been there to provide support as well as constant ribbing, as only siblings can do.
“I still believe, 100 percent, that if I hadn’t changed my attitude,” he says, “I would still be in a wheelchair with bags attached to my body.”