Family: Fiance Suzy, Mum Pat, Dad Harry and Brother James
Star Sign: Leo
Favourite Food: Chinese
Mat Lee has endured something more terrifying than most of us could ever imagine. On 2nd July 2015 he was attacked and mauled by a shark off Lighthouse Beach in Ballina, and very nearly lost his life.
Now, over two years later and after many difficult months of recovery, he is telling his story.
Mat says he had just caught a wave that morning, and was paddling back out to his mates (Grant Mcomish and Brian Mitchell), when he saw the shark beneath him, about one second before it struck.
‘After the initial strike, all I felt was just a really strong pressure on my legs as if I was in a giant clamp. I just thought ‘I’ve got to do something’ so I poked it in the eye. It let go of me just as quick as it had grabbed me.’
But the damage had been done. Grant and Brian heard the commotion, but by the time they got back to Mat he was lying limp on his board, bleeding profusely. They helped him catch a wave in and used the leg ropes as tourniquets. The rescue helicopter arrived in good time and, in the biggest stroke of luck in this whole story, was carrying blood packs for the first time ever, as part of a trial. So Mat received a transfusion on the beach.
For a while there, doctors thought he might lose his left leg, or at least his foot, but despite extensive muscle and nerve damage to both legs, he still has them, and today he can walk.
But he did lose a lot that day. He lost a way of life, he lost confidence, and he lost direction.
It’s not only the physical injuries that have been very difficult to deal with,’ he says. ‘The mental side of things has also been extremely challenging.’
In the early days, lying in hospital, thinking about what had happened and what would happen to him in the future, Mat says he got very low.
‘I would get irritable and frustrated because I couldn’t do the things I used to do, and even to this day sometimes I get this awful feeling that something bad is going to happen.’
After three months in hospital, multiple surgeries, several more months in a wheelchair, then crutches, then a cane, Mat is now walking unaided. An achievement he credits to his ongoing commitment and determination toward his rehabilitation, along with the guidance of his exercise physiologist, Michael Woods. But the struggle is not over.
He deals with his depression on a daily basis. How? By taking the dog for a walk, riding his bike, swimming laps, spending time with the ones he loves, like fiancé Suzy, and by getting professional help.
‘You’ve got to reach out to the people around you,’ he says.
He’s also reached some incredible milestones along the way: learning to walk again and then climbing Mt Warning to raise money for Beyond Blue; getting engaged to Suzy (‘an incredible support through all of this’); enrolling in a creative writing course at University; and surfing again, once off Shelley Beach, and then in the Cook Islands with mate Brian, who was with him the day he was attacked.
But perhaps one of the biggest achievements for Mat has been getting the courage to tell his story in public. Speaking in front of 800 students at Ballina Coastal High School was one of his scariest moments.
‘I was really nervous, but I’ve got a PowerPoint presentation to keep me on track, and that’s got some pretty gnarly surgery footage and photos, which the kids like’ he says. ‘Afterwards I had many teachers and students coming up to me and shaking my hand. It was a really rewarding experience and I realised it was something that I want to keep doing.’
Can you think of a good thing to come out of this experience? I am grateful to still be alive, discovering that I have an inner strength to keep pushing myself and being able to share my story to help others.
Worst thing? Having to let go of my old life. I used to get up every morning and check the surf. It was a huge part of my life and my escape. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that again. And physically I just can’t do the things I used to do.
What’s your philosophy on life now? Life is short and unpredictable. Make the most of it.
You can follow Mat on facebook (Mat Lee) and Instagram (@mat_lee82)