Pro hockey player Matthew Bell was at the top of his game. In 2016 he was gearing up for the Olympics in Rio De Janeiro. When he didn’t make the cut for the sporting world’s biggest stage, he thought he was having the worst day of his life. He had no idea what was ahead of him.
Three years later, Matthew began experiencing vomiting and migraines and his hockey form started to drop. As a result, his new club signing in Belgium sent him back to his previous German club - a stroke of fate that would prove the difference between life or death.
Craigavon born Matthew’s world was upended when he went for an MRI scan in September 2019 which revealed a brain tumour the size of three golf balls in his midbrain. He would need emergency surgery to stop a fatal brain haemorrhage.
After spending six weeks in hospital in Germany and enduring five surgeries, Matthew was flown home to Belfast by air ambulance to start cancer treatment. While away from home he stopped eating, talking and walking for seven weeks. His parents were told by the consultant neurologist that he couldn’t tell them if their son would ever walk or talk again.
However, in a testament to his sheer resilience, strength and determination, one year to the date of his diagnosis, Matthew beat the odds and ran unaided for the first time.
“The first day I ran unaided my dad said to me he didn’t think he’d ever see me run again. I was in a wheelchair for two months so the first time I ran unaided, I cried” said Matthew.
“The first few weeks in Germany I was up walking, talking, eating and then the last week I just took a really bad turn and stopped all of those life skills. I think about six weeks into hospital in Belfast dad had obviously had enough."
“He came into my room one day, pulled up a chair beside me and sat down and sternly spoke to me and he said ‘I know you can speak, you know you can speak, so pull your finger out and start speaking.’ Now he wishes he hadn't told me because I haven’t stopped speaking since.”
Back home in Belfast, Matthew spent time at the Belfast City hospital receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy and worked with different physios, occupational therapists and speech therapists in hospital to get back to normality.
Throughout his journey he never lost that positive elite sportsperson mindset and credits this as helping him get through the most difficult period of his life.
He explained: “My parents and my family thankfully have always been very positive and that definitely helped me get through. It’s not something that I think will go away, having that attitude. I think it comes from being a sportsperson at the highest level. It’s something that’s ingrained in me, I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon.”
There is a lot of rhetoric around those who have been through what Matthew has been through as being ‘inspirational’. Despite already being this for many, Matthew doesn’t see himself in this way. In ‘Second Chances’ he states “I don’t see it as inspirational. I just see it as someone getting over an illness and getting back to the sport they love. Nothing inspirational about it.”
He elaborated: “I think it comes from being a professional international hockey player, that kind of elite sportsperson mentality. It definitely helped me get through what I went through: the times in a hospital bed wondering if I would ever get back on to the hockey pitch."
“I think it is all down to that positive mental attitude that you need to have to get to the top of your game.”
This attitude is something that is ingrained in Matthew and will stay with him going forward into the future, which looks bright: “Last year I played a full season for the 3XI and last year we got promoted so this year we’re going to be in the top league that we can possibly play in."
“I want to continue on the hockey pitch, trying to improve as much as possible and also I’m going into a coaching role within the club. I’m not as good as I used to be on the pitch, but I still have that knowledge that I can hand down to the younger members in the team and club and can pass on the experience and knowledge that I have. If I can benefit them in any way, that’s brilliant for the club and the sport.”
Matthew’s book, Second Chances, priced £9.99, can be purchased from Excalibur Press
Slán go fóill.