Ask any student on the University of Arizona campus why they are attending school here, and you’ll get a different reason for every person. For some, it’s to continue a legacy of collegiate education or be the first in their family to ever attend. For others it’s a way to broaden their horizons and make career connections. For anthropology major Christian Matthews, it’s to fulfill a literal second chance at life.
The 24-year-old seems like your everyday college student. He goes to class all day, works to support himself and pay rent, plays video games in his downtime and even makes his own versions of ancient cultural artifacts. The handmade Viking round shield in his living room is one of them he displays with pride.
So, what set Matthews apart from the other anthropology majors?
Well, it’s a little morbid. When he was 19-years-old, he died in front of an ambulance in Belgium after hitting the back of a van that was going around 34 miles per hour. He had been racing professionally there, after being scouted by a coach in Tucson.
On the day of the accident, he and other members of his peloton (a group of cyclists) were going out to get some coffee.
“Our plan was to go and ride into this town nearby called Oudenaarde,” he says. “It was supposed to be a leisurely ride because we had a race the next day.”
Matthews had been really wanting to see this small town and just hang out and relax with his fellow teammates. Unfortunately, tensions within the group did not make it easy.
“One of my teammates … was kind of being a jerk, and he was kind of playing around with me a lot. He kept leaning on my bike, kind of like pushing me around,” he recalls.
While tactics like leaning, locking handlebars and pushing were things Matthews was familiar with when racing, he was not in the mood for them during their casual ride–as casual as 34 mph on a bike can be.
“We got on the range of like, 27-to-34 miles per hour, going down this highway, and so, to give some background, Belgian roads are designed where you have car lanes, parking lanes and then a bike lane and the parking lane is really wide and you’re supposed to park along the highway,” Matthews explains.
The ways the roads are set up is important for what happens next, a little explanation for what caused the accident.
There was a van parked in the bike lane. But the crucial moments before his impact are lost on Matthews. He doesn’t remember the exact moment of impact.
“I have no memory of my actions, other than I remember looking backwards and then looking forwards and then all of a sudden it was like this flash of light … It felt like waking up from a nap,” he explains. “But I was on the side of a van.”
Matthews had hit the back of the van, the impact throwing his bike 2 feet behind him and pulling his body under the van. At first, he thought he’d just fallen off of his bike, lost his balance and took a tumble onto the asphalt. It wasn’t until he felt warm blood spurting from his neck that he began realizing the severity of his accident.
In a panic, Matthews desperately began looking for his teammates, not being able to see them as he was still trapped under the van. In these moments, he didn’t feel fear or helplessness, at least not yet. He felt rage.
Thankfully, his teammates hadn’t left him. In fact, they began to desperately try to help him.
“One of my teammates grabbed my shoulders and pulled me backwards and told me to calm down,” he says.
But he couldn’t, the stress and shock of what had just happened to him sinking in and weighing heavy. His body was losing an alarming amount of blood, and fast. A bystander had witnessed the accident and tried to help as much as she could. Unfortunately, the language barrier between her, Matthews and his teammates had them losing precious seconds.
Fate was seemingly on Matthews’ side, as the woman quickly picked up on what they were saying and called for an ambulance. During this time, Matthews kept fidgeting and trying to stand up, his teammates fighting to keep him sitting on the ground and keeping still.
By the time the ambulance finally arrived, Matthews had been fading in and out of consciousness, barely even registering that it had arrived.
When the emergency medical technicians (EMTs) saw Matthews, they immediately began working, speaking to each other in Dutch and trying to assess the situation. In his battered state, Matthews can only remember what he describes as the “rough-looking” EMT that was trying to get his cycling cleats off. Not knowing that she had actually been making the situation worse.
The kind of cleats Matthews was wearing were secured with a clasp that needed to be popped off in order to get the shoe off. However, the EMT was unknowingly tightening the show as she struggled to get it off. Then after growing frustrated, she tried to yank it off. And then, that was it.
“Everything went to white and then I don’t have any memory other than like, this relaxing fading feeling of being really warm and then that’s it,” he says.
It was then that he died. His heartbeat stopped and he no longer responded. At age 19, Christian Matthews died in front of the ambulance.
Luckily for him, he was able to be “brought back.”
Matthews doesn’t remember much of anything. He remembers his body feeling incredibly sore, he remembers the morphine he received on the ride to the hospital, being wheeled around and seeing his coach’s wife and waking up after emergency surgery. The moments in between these events have gone into the void that Matthews had been ripped back out of.
He had 24 stitches applied to his face, a sealing procedure on one of his veins, and a custom neck brace because he’d fractured his C5 vertebrae.
Thankfully, his recovery went smoothly, a reprieve from the traumatic event that landed him in the hospital.
Something that stands out about Matthews is the sense of humor he keeps about this life-changing event.
But coming back to the U.S. wouldn’t be as easy for him. He spent some time grieving over what had happened to him and where to go after investing so much of his time and energy into a budding cycling career. Eventually, he moved on, finding interest in ancient cultures and civilizations. Remember the Viking shield?
“My favorite thing about archaeology is I love being outdoors,” he says. “One of the things I love is being a voice for humans. Doing the research that people don’t think is important until they realize it is.”
Five years since his accident, Matthews is happy. He’s studying in a field that he is passionate about and working on the side, and still has time to joke around with friends about what could have been the worst moment of his life.