Spinal cord inflammation diagnosis came when he was a baby
Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The morning of Oct. 11, 2005, was like any other for the McCarthy family. Tracy was getting her youngest child, then-9-month-old Matthew, ready for day care. Just learning to walk, he was banging on his crib and squirming away from his mom.

Meet all of this year's Kid Captains by reading this related story.

A few hours after Tracy dropped off Matthew, the day care called her to report that he was acting cranky, had fallen, and possibly hurt his wrists.

When Tracy arrived at the day care, her mother’s intuition kicked in.

“I could tell something was really wrong,” she recalls.

Tracy took Matthew to a Cedar Rapids emergency room, where doctors began extensive testing. Meanwhile, Tracy and her husband, Aaron, watched their son get progressively worse.

Matthew McCartney's story. Video courtesy of the UI Children's Hospital.

Eight hours after arriving at the ER, Matthew was paralyzed from the shoulders down.

“When they said they wanted to keep him for observation, my husband said, ‘No, we’re taking him to the University of Iowa,’” remembers Tracy.

An MRI at UI Children’s Hospital showed Matthew had transverse myelitis—a rare neurological disorder caused by inflammation of the spinal cord.

Matthew had a cold a few weeks prior to the onset of his symptoms. The virus from the cold activated Matthew’s immune system, which mistakenly attacked the myelin in his spinal cord. Myelin acts as an insulator for the nerves in the spinal cord. When injured, messages are not carried to and from the brain properly.

Pediatric neurologist Katherine Mathews, M.D., immediately ordered high-dose steroids to decrease the swelling, which was now affecting the entire length of Matthew’s spine.

“I’ll be forever grateful to her for diagnosing him as quickly as she did,” says Tracy. “If it wasn’t for her running the right tests that night and getting him started on steroids as quickly as she did, I have no doubt we would’ve lost him.”

“UI Children’s Hospital is a great place to be because they find things that other hospitals don’t,” adds Aaron. “They’re looking outside the box.”

When Matthew was released from the hospital eight weeks later, he had a feeding tube and required oxygen to help him breathe. The Continuity of Care team made sure Tracy and Aaron knew how to care for their son and set them up with home nurses.

“Dr. Mathews saved his life, and the Continuity of Care team helped us learn how to live with the new life that we had,” says Tracy.

Since then, Matthew has regained function from the waist up as his body repairs the damaged myelin in his spine. He no longer needs the oxygen or feeding tube, and he visits UI Children’s Hospital yearly to see urology and orthopedic specialists.

The bright, active 9-year-old loves swimming, roller coasters, making up games with his brother, Luke, and watching movies with his older siblings, Marissa and Gage. Matthew doesn’t let anything slow him down.

“I’m extremely proud of Matthew,” says Tracy. “He has such a positive attitude and a positive outlook on life. He’s such an inspiration to so many people.”

Learn more about:

To see other Kid Captain profiles, click here.