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Crippling Crash Led to New Life of Aiding Others

Times Staff Writer

As a nursing student at Valley College in 1968, 22-year-old Suzie Matz was athletic and popular.

“I had golf lessons, I played tennis and, with these looks, I had a different date every Friday and Saturday night,” said Matz, who lost the use of her legs after an airplane crash 17 years ago.

All that changed overnight. “When you get in a wheelchair, suddenly you aren’t so marketable anymore,” she said.

Her career ambitions also took a different turn that eventually led her to a profession in which she helps handicapped patients and stroke victims make the transition from hospital to home.

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Matz recently received the Pilot International Handicapped Woman of the Year Award. Virginia Miessner, president of the San Fernando Valley Chapter of Pilot International, which was founded in 1944 to honor professional women worldwide, said that Matz’s commitment to rehabilitation helped her win the national competition.

Devastating Experience

As discharge coordinator in the rehabilitation department at Northridge Hospital Medical Center, Matz assists others in coming to terms with their disabilities just as she did. But she admits that her own transition was devastating.

Her injuries occurred in a the crash of a small plane in North Hollywood in which the pilot died. The plane’s other five passengers recovered without permanent disabilities.

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“In the beginning I wanted to commit suicide,” she said. But she said she finally came to realize that she was lucky to be alive.

“Slowly, slowly, slowly, life comes back,” she said. “All those little things you enjoyed--like sunsets, and rainstorms and the wind in your face--all those things come back and you find that life still offers new horizons and new adventures.”

Matz’s job now is to work with patients, many of whom have been involved in accidents even more debilitating than hers, to coordinate their recovery activities between the doctors, nurses, physical therapists, psychiatrists and other personnel.

She makes sure paper work for insurance companies is up to date so that patients have funds for the equipment they will need when they are released. She sees to it that home care is provided for patients who will need medical attention after discharge. If the needs of the patient are minimal, it is her job to ensure that families of the patients can perform the necessary duties as well as hospital nurses.

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Matz has a working knowledge of all the newest and most sophisticated wheelchairs, respirators and pharmaceutical supplies. Because she has a medical background, she also has experience with what patients are physically capable of as a result of their specific injuries.

But she says her forte is her ability to make the recently disabled cope with reality.

“This is what life looks like for a newly disabled person,” Matz said, putting her hand in front of her face to block all else from view. “They think ‘How am I gonna dress myself? How am I gonna go to the bathroom? How am I gonna get around? How am I gonna go to the grocery store?’

“It takes years and years to make these adjustments, but here, we take it one day at a time. One day at a time is the key,” she said.

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She wheels around the “gym,” a workout room for physical therapy sessions, at three times the speed of an able-bodied female staffer in high heels. Dodging and darting through the maze of equipment, she has words of encouragement for each patient and an endless supply of one-liners.

“Quads wanna be paras, paras wanna be able-bodied and able-bodieds wanna be rich,” she says, referring to quadriplegics and paraplegics.

One patient, Joey Miller, is confined to a wheelchair and has minimal use of his hands and arms. His head is in a large traction device called a “Halo” and he hopes to gradually acquire the strength to be fitted with a similar but less-cumbersome device.

A gifted student at Temple City High School in the San Gabriel Valley, 15-year-old Joey was a competitive swimmer who also played water polo. It has been little more than eight weeks since his accident, but with a nudge from Matz he does not flinch while recalling it.

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“I was riding a bike when my front tire came off and I did a nose dive,” he said.

Joey went on to describe some of the goals of his therapy sessions.

“I’m working on building up my arms, transferring from chair to bed or car, and building my upper body. I’m also working on feeding myself and being able to develop a pinch between by thumb and forefinger.” Like any 15-year-old, Joey also wants to learn to drive.

Matz said the progress of patients such as Joey is her reason for living.

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She looked around the gym and explained, “It’s the guts and the courage of these individuals who come in here and work and sweat and get themselves going again.”

Years ago, Matz struggled against her parents’ wishes that she should finish her last semester of nursing school from a wheelchair.

She stuck it out, but after graduation Matz said she couldn’t get a job.

“Nobody wanted to hire me,” she said. Matz said she did return to school to get a second nursing degree but she knew what she really wanted was a job. She worked part time waiting for something to come up.

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After two years, the Northridge hospital offered her a job as a patient representative. Two years later, she became discharge coordinator, a position that allows her to combine her nursing background with her personal experience.

“It seemed like a hand in a glove,” she said.

Matz says emphatically that she is not a therapist. She does some counseling but her main concern is helping patients function in their old environments despite their new disabilities. Matz explained that what were simple reflexive movements yesterday must now be relearned with Herculean effort.

“You gotta start from scratch,” she said.

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