Marion native will represent Kid Captains this weekend


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Nine-year-old Matthew McCarthy and his friends have their own set of very specific games.

When they play outside, the other kids cling to ropes strapped to the back of Matthew’s wheelchair as he zooms around, helping them ski on the roads of Marion.

“There’s really not a lot that slows him down,” Matthew’s mother, Tracy McCarthy, said. “There are things he can’t do … but he plays with the kids outside. They have a bunch of games that they made up around his mobility.”

Although Matthew has always lived with some sort of mobility aid, he doesn’t let it hold him back.

“Anything that puts him on a level playing field he loves,”  McCarthy wrote in an email. “That’s why he likes these games — because he’s right in the middle of them.”

The unstoppable 9-year-old is this week’s Kid Captain for the Iowa-Purdue football game on Saturday.

The Kid Captain program highlights the stories of pediatric patients at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital while introducing them on the field during home football games, along with inviting them to Kids’ Day at Kinnick Stadium in August for a behind-the-scenes tour.

“He was really nervous at first,” Tracy McCarthy said. “Now he’s thrilled. He’s loving every minute of it.”

When Matthew was 9 months old, he was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder that causes injury to the spinal cord.

Matthew had had a cold a few weeks earlier. His body recognized the virus but also mistook the myelin, an insulator for the nerves in the spinal cord, as being part of the cold. When the antibodies attacked the virus, they also attacked Matthew’s body, leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Now, he has his arm strength back, and he’s continuing to take on life full force.

“He doesn’t look at not being able to not do stuff, he just figures out ways to get around [it,]” Matthew’s father, Aaron McCarthy, said. “He always wants to participate no matter what it is.”

Matthew’s parents say transverse myelitis is part of his life, but it does not define it.

“Because he was paralyzed when he was 9 months old, I don’t think he feels sorry for himself,” Tracy McCarthy said. “It’s just always what he’s known so he’s just happy with what he does have in his life.”

Particularly, she said this is true when it comes to swimming.

“That’s why he loves the pool so much,” Tracey McCarthy said in an email. “Hanging out and floating around just like everyone else. The sheer weightlessness of his body is what he loves most about it. He does push-ups on the stairs of the pool, dives in for me to catch him, floats, loves to be dunked … there’s not a place in the world that he loves more than the pool.”

Matthew swims the most at his aunt’s house.

“He’s just very encouraging,” Allison Schmidt, Matthew’s aunt, said. “When he’s in the pool, he jut makes leaps and bounds every time he comes over.”

This is something she said she thinks will help him as he continues to get stronger throughout his life.

“He still has that strong will, he still makes the best of every situation that he’s a part of, but he really still holds out that he will walk again [and] that’s what we’re all praying for,” she said. “It’s not that he’s accepted the fact that where he’s sitting today is where he’s going to be forever.”

Schmidt said she thinks Matthew is a role model for not only kids his age but for adults as well.

“For some kids … they would be downhearted and even slightly depressed, but he’s always looking up,” she said.

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