Talk Story: Matt Bernabe

  • Bethany Freudenthal / The Garden Island

    Wailua resident Matt Bernabe didn’t let the loss of his leg in a street bike accident and a lifelong battle with Methicillan-resistant staph slow him down. Since the accident, he has raised two daughters, run for County Council and is currently working in landscaping. During the historic April flooding, Bernabe used his chain saw skills to help clear debris from the water ways of a taro patch.

  • Contributed photo

    Matt Bernabe

When Matt Bernabe was in his third year of nursing school at Kauai Community College, he lost his leg in a streetbike accident.

He’d just finished acing a test and was on his way to visit his wife when he was hit by a delivery driver. While in the hospital after his accident, he contracted methicillin resistant staph.

With the outlook of, “it could be worse,” the Wailua man hasn’t let the loss of his limb or the continued health struggles slow him down. He and his wife have two daughters, one in college and one in middle school; he has owned and operated businesses; and he has run for County Council.

After graduating from high school, Bernabe moved to Oahu with his wife, who was attending college. During the day he was a tree trimmer and at night he worked as a cook. When the couple moved back to Kauai, he worked as a cook at Duke’s, but eventually decided to attend school.

Why did you move back to Kauai?

We moved back to Kauai because we were going to have our first child, who’s going to be 20 on her next birthday, so we decided, “You know Ma, you don’t want the house responsibility, just sign it over to us, we’ll use the money we already put in as a buy-in, which is basically not a gift,” so we bought in and that’s where we live now, that’s where we’ve lived ever since.

What did you do when you moved back to Kauai?

I was working at Duke’s and I wasn’t making that much money. You know, you do your taxes and you see at the end of the year you only make $17,000 and you’re broiling, you work downstairs and upstairs making big dollars for this company. For this people go under- appreciated.

And you know, one of the things that’s been my compass — and I’ve challenged the compass, I’ve tried to break it, I am my own worst enemy to my compass — is my wife. My wife is more stable than I am, which is ironic, because I’m pretty stable in an unstable way. I’m loud, I’m rambunctious, but I’m consistently good. My wife is a hygienist and I’m a cook, so when we had our first child I raised my daughters. I was the one who changed the diapers and heated up the bagged milk and eventually the formulas, the food; and eventually the entertainment, the flashcards. And one of the reasons my daughters are so high in the academics is because I was a nut, driven by how hard I worked and got nowhere. Education was the key.

How old were you when you went back to school?

I went back to school at 27.

What was it like starting school at that age?

So I’d gotten out of the military so I was just working and raising kids, one kid, I only had my one, and I went back to school. And what happened was I took the placement test and I scored really high, if I remember a 96, on the reading comprehension. However, I had scored like a 60 or 61 on the writing component of comprehension, and however it balanced out to get into the English 100 class, which I was not ready for.

I am good with numbers, I am really good at reading and understanding what I’m reading, I’m not so good at reporting; now it’s different than at the time back then, now I’ve had a few things published. I’ve written some stuff. I’m a way better writer now and with the implements of the computer, how can you not get better? At the time technology was not so good.

So anyway, I got into this English 100 class and started to fail immediately, immediately. I mean, like by the second week, the teacher’s like, “Hey man, maybe you should try to get some of your money back before the deadline of failing, bust up your syllabus,” and I’m like, “What’s a syllabus?” I’m that not ready for what I’m in.

How did you overcome that struggle?

What happened was, and this is the story I tell on the campaign, this is the crossroads, this was a moment in time that I can go back and say “Look, this is why I’m real.” This is when I was upset with where I was in my work career, I can work two jobs and survive, but I didn’t want to work two jobs. I was watching my daughter in the day, working late at night, cycle, and at this crossroads I said, either you buckle down and do what you’ve gotta do to catch it up and then, or you go back to the job that you don’t like, shut up and just suck it up buttercup.

And what I did was amazing. What I did was I applied every real world aspect of my qualities, all of my military, any and all of my professionalism I’ve drawn on in the past, I pulled a B off in that class and then, this is even more crazy, by the time I got run over, I was pulling a 4.0, although I had some bad grades that hadn’t quite up to the 3.5 yet, but I was pulling semesters that had 4.0.

How did your accident happen?

I had just finished a class. I had two hours to kill. At that point in time my wife had a one-hour lunch, she got off at noon and I was going to meet her, so I was actually on my streetbike. The funny thing was, I was selling the streetbike so I was actually riding conservatively, which is the ironic part because had I not been riding conservatively I probably would have been past the intersection, but instead I was following the speed limit, but maybe I was under the speed limit, because the speed limit was 35, and we were turning out of the turn, and before they made the road.

So over here in front the college is concrete highway; when I got run over 15 years ago, that wasn’t the way that road was. It was a two-lane, tar road that you could turn left into the gas station, and that’s where I got run over. Now that couldn’t happen because it’s a center divide and you have to turn at the light. If you go to the gas station you have to turn at the light, then into the gas station; however, that’s not how that was, and so, it was traffic and a delivery truck ran me over. I got ran over by a delivery truck.

So I got T-boned, is what they call it, and ejected, and either the peg or the corner of the steering wheel caught my leg and ripped it out, ripped out some of the bone, some of the bone was gone and it broke that skinny little fibula. I got ejected and I rolled out, was in the middle of the road in a double lane, the car was in the opposite lane.

I took my helmet off, I took my backpack off, I took my shirt off and I tied my own (tourniquet), and waited for the ambulance. They came, of course they told me to lay back, this that, patty whack, give the dog a bone, the ambulance came, I was cool, calm and collected. I was more upset that I was out of the program because I was doing so good. I was doing so damn good, that broke my heart.

How did you deal with the loss of your leg?

I dealt with the loss of the leg pretty relatively easily, almost freakishly, so to the point I’ve inspired some people along the way with their medical conditions. The thing is, no self pity. I grew up in the Portuguese lifestyle and the Portuguese lifestyle is “Boy, it could always be worse, you’re lucky.” It could always be worse and if you really zoom out on anything, here’s me with a missing leg, but if you’re right there and nobody’s going to say getting run over and getting your limb loss is not bad, it’s bad, but if you zoom out to here, and you look out to all of these guys with lost limbs that same day and then you go and put you guys into the category, who can turn their faucet on and get fresh water and you realize two-thirds of the people the same day you lost your leg going to have to deal with it with dirty water, and I think to myself, “Brah, I’m lucky.”

I’m just saying there’s a way to look at stuff differently.

Did you go back to school after your amputation?

I went back to school after I lost my leg. I did a 4.0, 13 credits, clinclals, the whole nine yards, which is hard, with my fake leg. … I dropped out of nursing. I’m a MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) survivor.

I’m going to be honest with you, I have zero self pity or I don’t have any fear, what I’m trying to say is psychologically, MRSA messes with me more. I have one bigger problem with my world, with my MRSA. So I am a MRSA survivor and I cut the leg off to live, that’s why I cut the leg off. They took my stomach out to try to save me and so I have some of my stomach muscle over here, but I still get issues, I overwork it, I’m on pills for this.

In the last election, you ran for Kauai County Council. Tell me about that experience.

What I really want to emphasize was purpose. Like right now I get my younger daughter and I’m channeling lots of energy into my younger daughter. I’ve got an older daughter and she’s more political and part of me ran to help expose her to that, to show her anybody can do it.

I ran a very low budget, low impact campaign, but I got 4,266 votes out of it. People are mad at me right now that I’m not running. I went and got my prescription the other day, for my leg, the pharmacist at Longs in Kappa said, “I can’t believe you’re not running.” Even (Ross) Kagawa, Kagawa’s like, “Why you not say anything?”

I’m a volunteer, I do things, it’s like who I am; I don’t need to do things to get something back. I wasn’t running for any other reason than I want my kids to have a better place and my tax dollar to be spent better and I advocate for best practice.

What are you doing now?

Now I got my older one in college, so obviously I’ve had to buckle down and make more money, you know, supply and demand, so I’ve been working. I manage property out in Moloaa, but I’ve kind of just been laying low and kind of taking in the whole situation with the national politics. And having been as much active in a sense as going politically, but I engage in talk and I will be going more, I have gone on a few agenda items here and there, but it’s very frustrating right now, there’s so much polarization.

So my daughter’s in middle school, my younger one, and so I’ve kind of been gearing and spending time with her and helping her get through middle school to where she can get to high school. Once that one’s in high school, it’s a little bit easier for them in the high school years than it is in the middle school years, they need a little bit more attention. And so elementary’s the same as high school, you can put an x amount of energy in and get a good result. And middle school, this new dynamic, puberty hits in and what-not, you’ve got to put some time and energy and money, so that’s kind of keeping me out of the limelight. However, I actually am getting the bug to start writing, start writing something, I used to write into the paper and even have the opportunity if I get my act together to go to Kilauea to get a slot on the radio station. I go on that frequently.

Do you think you’ll run again?

You know, I said I never would, but never is not a good thing to say. You should never say never, however, what I can tell you is this. I think my daughter — and I’m hoping she agrees with me — I think my daughter has a better chance, and me helping run her campaign in the future when she comes back after college, which will be perfect timing with my other daughter going into high school. So there hasn’t really been anything that I haven’t done that hasn’t been about my children. The reason I ran was for my children, my older one.

What’s the one thing you learned through the healing process after your accident?

Lifestyle choices. Lifestyle choices. You have to manage your stress, you have to manage your diet, you have to clean yourself, keep yourself clean, it’s OK to get dirty, clean yourself.

And the other thing is which is probably right up there with the diet, this is the two primary things and stress, is you have to excercise and push yourself. I’ve learned that take care of your body, it’s a temple.

What would you say to someone whose going through a similar catastrophic event?

Don’t dwell on it. “It could always be worse” is the same thing as “Don’t dwell on it.” Don’t dwell on it, brah. I had my second daughter because I lost my leg. Best thing that ever happened to me was losing my leg because I had more than one baby. I say this all the time, my fiver, my ace, my second ace, my pair of aces, I was only going to have one ace because I was only going to have one. I lost my leg, I was like, “You know what, we better make one more,” so you know, don’t dwell on it. Don’t dwell on it. Get up, get active, get moving. Not every day, some days you’re going to have to stop and rest, but don’t rest for two years, maybe one day at the most.


Bethany Freudenthal can be reached at 652-7891 or bfreudenthal@thegarden


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