LOS ANGELES – Matthew Brewer is running down the track at UCLA's Drake Stadium. His arms pump, his legs fly down lane number 5 as fast as his prosthesis lets him.
Brewer takes part in the 200-meter sprint at the Angel City Games, a four-day adaptive sports festival in which more than 450 athletes recently took part. They all have overcome difficulties to get here. Everyone knows what their colleagues have been through.
So when Brewer stumbles across the finish line, there is no moaning or grumbling, just encouragement and applause – "Come on, Matt! You got that, Matt! "
He finds the balance again, which is not easy for prosthetics. He walks powerfully to the line and hugs the first place winner. He smiles.
Moments like this are incredible for him given the opportunities.
A September night
Brewer, 44, grew up in Huntington Beach and had a very active childhood. He played a lot of sports – surfing, skateboarding, BMX biking and snowboarding were his favorites – and he was Mr. Popular. Brewer was cute, nice and generous. There was never a drama in the house.
"He was always the shining star in the room," said his sister Tera. “He was the type everyone wanted to be friends with or to date. Super sporty, good in everything. It's just fun to be here. "
Brewer participated in snowboarding and was ranked 14th in the country in 1998 by the American Amateur Snowboard Association. After discovering that he wasn't fit to compete with some of the top riders, Brewer was still snowboarding for fun while attending Community College at Orange Coast College and doing a construction job. He liked the adrenaline rush he would get if he was approaching a big jump. He enjoyed being outside with his friends and being in the fresh air. The thrill was unprecedented.
In 2008, testicular cancer was diagnosed in Brewer. And everything has changed. Some of his family members had already died of cancer, including an aunt with breast cancer. He wondered if he would survive, if he would ever have children. He wanted to start a family and that was doubtful now.
Brewer became addicted to opioid pain relievers. When his doctor interrupted him, he turned to heroin. He was addicted for six years. He spent 90 days in jail for heroin possession. The morning after his release, his family performed an intervention and put him in rehab. Brewer was pleased with the gesture. It seemed like he had finally recognized his condition, finally sober.
"He was out of the door so quickly with the suitcase," said his mother Cathy. "We were just wondering what happened. He was just so happy to have this support. He was just finished. He knew he couldn't continue his lifestyle. "
Brewer was sober for a few months. But on September 25, 2014, everything collapsed again. Tera remembers everything from that day. Brewer had recently moved out of the sober house and was living with a roommate who had been in rehab with him. She asked her brother, who had been working on the building again, if he wanted to go to dinner. When he didn't pick up, she felt something was wrong. He finally texted her later that evening – he was tired and would call it a night. Tera was still uncomfortable.
The next day was the day of the siblings. Tera remembers because Brewer didn't like it or commented when she posted an old picture of it on Facebook, and that was unusual for him. He did not answer any calls and his phone went to voicemail.
Finally, late at night, her father told Terry Tera the news: Matthew was in the hospital. Eighteen hours after he injected heroin, his roommate found Brewer on the bathroom floor, who was passed out from an overdose. When he got there, Brewer knew that he was unable to act and that something was wrong.
"I remember the paramedics who were there and asked if I could move my legs," said Brewer. "When I couldn't, I started to panic."
Then his memory faded. He looked lifeless in the hospital. He didn't say a word. Five days later, after being transferred to UC Irvine and going through some operations, doctors informed the Brewer family that his legs needed to be amputated to save his life.
"Which one?" Asked Cathy, dazed.
"Both," they replied.
Two and a half years after the amputation, Brewer had little motivation to do anything. To cope with the after-effects, the doctors had prescribed opioids: the same drugs that started his addiction phase. His family was incredulous. It was a protocol, the doctors said. It was necessary to get the pain under control.
The brewing state was sad to look at. For Tera, her brother was a human shell. He would watch TV every day. He would come to family celebrations and look comatose. The once lively and energetic star of the family was unrecognizable.
"He was right where he started," said Tera, "but he had to be in a wheelchair and do it."
They also felt guilty. Cathy wondered why it had to be her son. She had brought up Matthew and Tera the same way. What was missing in his life? Why did he go out like this?
"You wonder where you went wrong as a parent," said Cathy.
A chance connection could have changed Brewer's life. Tera, who owns a hair salon in Newport Beach, had a customer who was a producer on the medical show "The Doctors". In 2016 Brewer appeared for the first time in his three appearances. It can be seen on YouTube under the title "I lost my legs in heroin" and the video has over 26,500 views. Brewer is lying on the couch in the studio, his sister holds his hand, his parents next to it. The mood is incredibly dark. When asked when he last took his pain reliever, Brewer replied: "This morning."
"You can see if you watch that he has medical care and doesn't look good," said Tera. "He hardly spoke. It was like pulling your teeth. "
But the show's experts gave him help. He came back a second time to be shown transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to rid him of the drugs. The third time they brought him together with a lawyer for amputees. He would go again, they said.
"When I detoxified opioids and received this innovative treatment, it's like the light switch is on," Brewer said. "I was determined to go again."
But it was not easy. For anyone who has a prosthesis on, the process is both mentally and physically demanding. Brewer suffered setbacks and was frustrated.
One of Brewer's low points occurred in 2017 when he and his sister flew to Oklahoma City to participate in a bilateral over-the-knee boot camp organized by the Hanger Clinic. It was his first time on an airplane. At the airport, the elevator to his terminal was broken, so he had to climb out of the wheelchair and roll down stairs. It was stressful and humiliating. He was already in his head because of his physical condition, being restricted to a wheelchair, and the public ordeal made it worse.
"He said it was the hardest day in his life as a bilateral amputee," said Cameron Clapp, a triple amputee who also visited the camp.
But it was there that Brewer saw his breakthrough. He made friends with Clapp, who happened to be on the same flight and became one of his mentors. He met other amputees who were on the same trip. And he started running again.
The instructors provided him with "Stubbys", a square piece of plastic that looks like a shoe that gradually builds up muscle strength. And everything came together in the camp, surrounded by mentors and experts.
Every few weeks, Brewer sat up by the centimeter. Finally, he switched to full-body prosthetics.
"He had the potential all the time," said Clapp. "Only to be able to use the strength that he already had within himself through support from peers and mentors and to take part in the truly inspiring commitment that triggered him."
With functioning prosthetics, new life and new interest in sport, Brewer is in a happy place. He is back home with his parents. He has a friend, Wendy, who works at the Hanger Clinic. He swims. He snowboards. He is surfing. He takes part in events such as the Angel City Games, where he is judged not on his disability but on his ability.
This is the message he would like to pass on to other amputees when giving lectures and visiting the hospital: create your own reality. Don't let self-doubt slow you down. He will travel to another lecture event in July.
"It gave it a purpose," said Cathy. "We were always proud of him, but the pride he had in himself was the icing on the cake. He is only looking forward to the next event and the next event."
After the 200-meter sprint, Brewer goes to his family in the stands on the track. Wendy is there too. His father Terry shines and scrolls through the pictures. Brewer chats for a few minutes and takes a breath. But soon he will go to change. He swims in an hour.