High School Sports

These Lexington twins earned NCAA scholarships. They almost died as infants.

You might say the Mathews twins are good at beating the odds.

Paul Laurence Dunbar seniors Austin and Hunter Mathews help make up the 6 percent of high school athletes, nationally, who will go on to compete at the NCAA level as part of the 2019 graduating class. Austin, a distance runner, has signed with East Carolina University. Hunter will play tennis for Kentucky Wesleyan.

Two sons from the same womb attaining NCAA stature? That achievement on its own would be worthy of fanfare. Now consider this: Neither picked up his respective sport until later in childhood; Austin started running as a student at Lexington Christian Academy in seventh grade and Hunter didn’t play tennis until his freshman year at Dunbar. Both loved basketball growing up.

“My dad played (tennis) in high school,” Hunter said. “He’d been trying to get me to play a lot before my freshman year, but I never really wanted to because I was a basketball player and tennis didn’t seem too fun. I was terrible.”

Austin’s development as a runner was stunted early thanks to Hunter, who mistakenly “spiked” — stepped on his feet while wearing cleats — his brother at a meet, and the spikes caused a season-ending injury to his right foot. Now Austin this week is a favorite to win the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs at the KHSAA Class 3A Championships. His best times this year for each are the fastest in the state.

“I’m just gonna have to give it all I got and hope for the best,” Austin said.

Two sons from the same womb attaining NCAA stature despite coming to their sports later than many? Incredible.

But here’s the real kicker: As toddlers, both overcame separate, different life-threatening illnesses that made uncertain their athletic futures, even after they survived round after round of emergency-room visits.

“They’re my heroes,” said Dee Dee Matthews, the boys’ mother.

Happy Halloween

The boys were born five weeks before their due date. That wasn’t too unusual: four weeks earlier than a full 40-week term of pregnancy, according to Parents.com.

Austin came into the world in perfect health. However, the Mathews knew something was wrong with Hunter prior to birth; doctors couldn’t identify the problem, but his ultrasounds weren’t clean. Upon birth they realized his small intestine was twisting upon itself. At 1-day old, doctors removed 4 inches of Hunter’s small intestine and reconstructed it.

Hunter was put on intravenous feeding tubes, which led to another problem: when having a central line inserted, the nerve that controls his vocal cords was disturbed, causing airway damage. He underwent several surgeries to address that before he turned 1.

His small intestine continued to twist on itself and eventually led to a tear. It telescoped in on itself, twisted over a blood supply and died; Hunter lost 90 percent of his small intestine at 3 years old. Following that surgery, he became septic and eventually went into cardiac arrest, which caused his kidneys to fail. He went into emergency surgery on July 24.

“We were told he was the sickest kid in the ICU unit at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital,” Dee Dee said. “They weren’t sure he was gonna make it.”

After seven weeks of sedation — “enough medicine that had an adult had that, they’d be knocked out six months, but he was waking up all the time,” Dee Dee said — seven weeks on a ventilator and six weeks of dialysis, Hunter made it. He returned home on Oct. 24 to a Mathews home dressed to the nines in Halloween decorations.

“And we do it to this day,” Dee Dee said. “We celebrate that homecoming every year.”

Hunter by the time he was 5 years old underwent 19 surgeries — 15 stemming from his twisted small intestine and four to treat his airways. He had to use a feeding tube until he was 15, and is noticeably soft-spoken and hoarse as a result of his other surgeries.

His voice doesn’t bother him — he’s grown up with it being the norm, so why would it? — but it has often prompted others to ask if he’s in need of a cough drop. Hunter laughed as he shared a frequent problem he encounters.

“Going through drive-thrus and stuff,” Hunter said. “That’s one of the few issues I’ve had with it, is going through drive-thrus, ‘cause now I have to go in.”

‘Two normal kids’

Austin — healthy as could be at the onset — after a while was not developing as he should. He started having seizures as an infant. While navigating Hunter’s health crisis, the Mathews’ other son ended up getting bacterial meningitis.

It took a while but doctors were able to pin down an effective antibiotic formula to treat Austin’s strain of bacteria. Nurses realized that, while in NICU, he only moved his eyes when someone entered the room, not his head, signifying a mid-line development problem. If that wasn’t addressed through therapy, Austin’s sight might not have developed properly and it was possible — a 50/50 chance — that he would never walk.

Both boys were admitted into the First Steps program for occupational therapy, developmental intervention therapy and speech therapy and continued those treatments through age 3.

“And it was kind of funny to watch, because early on when he couldn’t move around quite as well, if Austin wanted a toy, he would point and Hunter would go over there and get that toy and bring it to Austin,” Dee Dee said. “So literally we had to put them in two different play areas to make Hunter not do what Austin wanted him to do and make Austin do what he should be doing.”

Austin suffered some permanent damage to his front temporal lobe because of meningitis, which has led to anxiety problems, particularly when it comes to absorbing new information. Still, he reflects fondly on what he and his brother have been able to get past.

“It’s kind of crazy, seeing where we are now, sitting here about to graduate high school and all the things that we’ve been able to get through and all the things that we can celebrate, getting to embark to college as two normal kids,” Austin said. “There is hope at the end of the road, no matter what, if you continue to fight.”

Dee Dee and her husband, Sean, stay in touch with the doctors and nurses who treated their sons more than a decade ago. They credited strong local family ties, as well as their church family, for helping them and their sons get through the early years of their existence.

After running at one time what she described as a “mini intensive care unit” at the Mathews home, it would have been easy for Dee Dee to be an overbearing mother. But, hey, then they would have never kept conquering the odds.

“When all this happened, I placed the boys in God’s hands, basically. I knew that whatever their futures were, that He had it,” Dee Dee said. “Occasionally when Hunter would get hit in basketball I’d be like, ‘Oh,’ then I’d see him bounce back up with a big smile on his face. You can’t go through something like that and have your kids come out on the other side and then just want to put ’em in a bubble and hide ‘em from the world.

“I firmly believe that they were left here for a reason, and it was for them to flourish and share their story and give hope to people. If I had just kept them in a bubble, they wouldn’t be as happy as they are today, No. 1, and No. 2, their stories wouldn’t make as much of an impact. I’ve always trusted that they were gonna be fine.”

KHSAA state track meet

When: Class A Thursday, Class 2A Friday, Class 3A Saturday

Where: University of Kentucky outdoor track and field complex