While experiencing great joy watching her 7-month-old daughter reach first milestones, she also felt deep sorrow as she kept vigil by the hospital bed of her husband, Matthew Burke.
Matthew Burke was the most gravely injured of five cyclists hit from behind by an SUV during a ride through Beech Island in Aiken County on Oct. 1, 2010.
His injuries were so severe his wife didn’t recognize him at the hospital the night he was hit. Bonnie said the sight of her husband surrounded by at least 10 nurses and doctors prepping him for emergency brain surgery is one she will never forget.
“The only way I knew it was him was his hands, his strong, graceful hands,” Bonnie said by e-mail, her first public comments since the wreck a year ago.
His condition was as much a roller coaster as her emotions, promising for one minute and bleak the next. Doctors hadn’t expected him to live at first, but he pulled through and that long night in the emergency room became a week, then months of prayerful vigil. The Burke family’s close bonds gave them strength, but it was the couple’s daughter, Anna Ryan, who “made sure that we would smile each day through our impossible darkness,” Bonnie said.
A Salt Lake City native, Matthew started his lifelong goal of becoming a doctor through a commission in the U.S. Army at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. He met his love at Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital, where he was completing his residency in orthopedic pediatric medicine. She was the cute nurse in the recovery room; he was the tall doctor with piercing blue eyes.
“I know it sounds cliche, Matt being a doctor and me a nurse, but that’s exactly how it happened,” Bonnie said.
After two months of working together, he took her on their first date to a Braves game. They spent so much time talking to each other they left without knowing the final score. Exactly a year after they started dating, he dropped to one knee and popped the question while presenting her with a ring.
He said “he couldn’t wait any longer to ask me,” Bonnie said.
The Army eventually sent Matthew to Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon, where he served as a staff orthopedic surgeon. After his death, Bonnie received dozens of phone calls and letters from patients expressing sympathy and sharing stories about his compassionate bedside manner, Bonnie said.
“He would always listen and make sure their fears were heard and addressed,” said Bonnie, adding that her husband took calls on his cell phone from patients at all hours.
Matthew met two of his dreams by becoming a doctor and marrying a nurse, but it wasn’t until his daughter was born that this last dream was fulfilled.
“Matt was just always someone who knew what he wanted. Many of those things he spent his life working very hard for, but with our daughter I guess we just got lucky,” Bonnie said. “I think he liked the idea of protecting his little girl and sharing that father-daughter relationship.”
Matthew worked hard, but he played hard, too. He was training for his first triathlon when he was hit. Weekends were spent with his family, hiking, rowing or just napping on the couch with the dog.
“He was a master of time management – he would do all of these things and somehow still put our daughter and me first,” Bonnie said.
As an avid outdoorsman, Matthew spent a lot of time in bike shops, meeting other cyclists and setting out on weekly rides. That was the case on Oct. 1, which Bonnie remembers as a beautiful fall day. Anna Ryan was 7 months old and she and her mother had just returned from a well-baby checkup. Bonnie was making dinner about 5 p.m. when her husband returned from work with his usual “Hello, beautiful! Hello, princess!”
After a quick meal, Matthew was back out the door. The last words he said to his wife were: “I love you.”
About 7 p.m., Bonnie noticed she had missed several calls while she was in the nursery with her daughter. It was a close friend whose husband was also a cyclist, but not riding that night. She called her back. There were few details: Matthew was hit by an SUV; he was on the way to the emergency room.
“It was a crushing moment of panic and fear, but I tried to stay calm so I wouldn’t scare our daughter,” Bonnie said. “I knew it was bad by the fear in her voice.”
Her friend offered to drive her to the hospital, but Bonnie gathered diapers and baby food and left immediately for Medical College of Georgia Hospital.
“I cried and prayed the entire way to the hospital. My head was spinning, my chest was tight and my heart was racing. I had to really focus on driving and staying calm,” Bonnie said.
They were met at the hospital by a trauma surgeon. As a nurse, Bonnie immediately recognized the look on his face, which was “full of sorrow and regret.” Her husband was on life support, he said, because of his serious brain injury. Immediate surgery was necessary to reduce the swelling in his head.
Bonnie insisted on seeing her husband, and she was shocked at the severity of his injuries. She clasped his hand.
“(I) told him I was there with him, that I loved him so much and was proud of him, that our daughter was ok … I told him to fight for us,” Bonnie said.
Her husband was then rushed away for surgery and a vigil in the waiting room started. Friends crowded the emergency room, and her in-laws arrived from Utah. Bonnie sat in silence, holding her daughter, unable to speak or look at anyone.
“I felt so broken, scared and numb,” she said.
Her husband survived the surgery that night and a long period of uncertainty began. Once his superficial injuries healed, they gave him foot massages, played his favorite music and kept watch by his bedside. Matthew was transferred from MCG to Eisenhower, where he died Feb. 6. He was 38.
Family has been a rock for Bonnie over the past six months as she works through her grief. Her daughter plays a major role in her recovery, keeping her “moving and thinking forward,” she said.
“She finds such delight in life’s simple moments, one of the many lessons I have learned from her. I sense Matt’s presence … through her,” she said.
There are moments in every day that remind Bonnie of her husband’s presence: the crisp morning air, late afternoon light, the way stars twinkle a little brighter.
“Knowing that he is watching over us and proud of us brings me great peace,” she said.