When you meet Matthew Zein and his dog companion, Diana, he will start the conversation by handing you his business card that reads:
‘When you wake up, ask yourself what three things are you going to do to better yourself and those around you?
When you go to bed, ask yourself what three things did you do to better yourself and those around you?
Beware of your attitude. When confronted with an obstacle, ask yourself how it can be transformed into an opportunity.
Attitudes influence perception. Perception influences reality. Only you can decide to put it into action.‘
They are words from his heart. And like him, they are real and unfiltered, because that’s the person circumstance has made him.
Life changed for Zien after scheduling a routine dental visit while stationed in a remote area of Thule, Greenland. Especially after having survived back-to-back deployments to the Middle East and becoming a highly decorated Technical Sergeant and Training Instructor for the Air Force Security Forces. However, it would be a simple cleaning by local dentists that would cause his heart to enlarge and eventually stop beating.
“In August of 2012, I left my job as a training instructor in San Antonio, Texas and moved up to Thule, Greenland,” he recalled. “It’s a thousand miles north of the Arctic Circle.” A base run by the Department of Defense (DOD), the volatile landscape has temperatures that average minus-25 degrees during the winter and months of around-the-clock darkness or light.
“One day I was sent in for a teeth cleaning,” Zien said. “I left feeling great…and then a week goes by, and I start to feel sick,” he said. And his heart seemed like it was beating off rhythm, but it’s made clear in the military, that unless you’re dying, you don’t go to the doctor.
Zien’s lack of energy evolved and he began having night sweats. It was time to go in for a second opinion. “I went to the doctor to see what was wrong with me,” he remembered. “The doctor looked at me and said, ‘Oh, you’re fine. Your body is just trying to get acclimated to being here.'”
As weeks passed, his symptoms worsened, and he returned to see the same local doctor. “They never took blood or gave me an EKG, but started to finally believe me when they noticed me having a hard time walking,” he stated. Eventually, Zien was diagnosed with Pneumonia.
Feeling slightly better, he started to plan for his scheduled leave to go back home and see his former girlfriend. His optimism kicked back in and he was hopeful the prescribed medicine would kickstart his once healthy 32-year-old body. “After I was cleared to fly, I barely managed to get on the plane,” said Zien. But when he arrived, it took him almost 4o minutes to walk up the jetway.
Surprised by his appearance, he could tell by his girlfriend’s face that something was seriously wrong. “About eight hours go by and she says, ‘You have to go to the doctor,'” he recalled. Taking her advice, Zien drove to the nearest emergency room.
Seeing a room filled with people, he checks in with the receptionist to sign in. “She asked me what I needed to be seen for,” he stated. “All I could say was, ‘I can’t breathe and my chest hurts.'” Hearing his wheezing and looking at his appearance, she moved him up the list.
“She got me right in and I said, “Would you believe this is the first time I’ve been hooked up to a machine?” he smiled. As she reads his vitals, her panic causes her to run off to look for doctors to confirm her findings.
“The nurse came back with six doctors who start asking me lots of questions,” said Zien. His vital signs and answers to their questions led doctors to give him an alarming diagnosis. “Mr. Z, we have no medical explanation as to why you are alive,” the physician continued, “You have beyond normal bacterial endocarditis, severe aortic insufficiency and your heart is dangerously enlarged.”
Doctors said his case was so bad, had he not gone to the ER — best case scenario — he would have been dead in 72 hours.
Due to exposure to unsanitized dental tools letting bacteria enter his system, Zien had developed the worst case of congestive heart failure the doctors had ever seen. Unable to treat his specific case, he was rushed to a cardiac hospital for emergency surgery to try to save his life.
But during the surgery, there were complications. “They couldn’t close me up because my liver was failing and my blood wasn’t clotting — I was resuscitated three times,” Zien recalled. Slipping into a coma, he went into renal failure and began going into septic shock. Doctors made the decision to contact his parents to break the news.
“You don’t come back from stuff like that,” he said. “But as all this is happening, my liver somehow recovered enough that they closed me up.” His vitals began to stabilize and he started to regain consciousness. His mother was the first person he remembers talking to.
“My mom asked, ‘Do you remember what you told us?’ You kind of woke up and started talking about things…you were talking about Elizabeth.'” She was his sister and best friend that was killed in a car accident several years prior. “Apparently, I told my mom that I had talked with her and that she said it wasn’t time for me to go,” Zien said.
Once stabilized, Zien was released to go home and begin his recovery. However, because the bacteria had been permitted to grow for so long inside his body, his life would be permanently changed.
“Essentially, Endocarditis gets severe after three days,” he noted. “So if you think about how I had it for 3 months, it had a long time to attack my body.” It spread from his heart to his spinal chord, and eventually to his brain stem. Much of the damage would be permanent.
“It also caused damage to my left eye so that it sometimes just goes out,” he continued, “I also now have these strokes where my right side droops and I lose consciousness- they call them Basilar Auditory Migraines.” But the change he recognizes every minute of every day is the constant ticking from the aorta valve and valve in his heart.
“I went from being a superstar in the military to being what I am now, not able to couldn’t communicate how I feel,” he remembered. Then, in a moment of desperation, on April 27th, 2013, he tried to take his own life. “It is what it is, but it was what I wanted to do because I was like man, screw this.”
A very pivotal point, he slipped into depression. Though he can’t remember how long it lasted, Zien does remember the feeling he had when he started to snap out of it. “One day I woke up and said, ‘This is stupid! I’m done with this,'” he said. “I knew I had to get out of this spot because I felt like I was dying.”
“I said, ‘Well, here’s what I know from my experience, I can’t make huge goals,'” he continued, “I have to make a goal I can reach.” Unrelated ideas popped into Zien’s head about how much he loves coffee and hearing the constant beat of his ticking of his heart. “So I set a 3-minute goal,” he said. “I was going to wake up and hear the tick-tick-tick from my artificial valves in my heart to make me get out of bed and go brew a pot of coffee; but as walked to the kitchen, I told myself to sing that dumb Folgers song.”
Meeting that goal led him to set a 5-minute goal and eventually encouraged him to put on his uniform and go back to work. “I’m a person who believes that your environment dictates your actions, so my new goal became to go to work each day and find two airmen to say something nice too,” said Zien.
Zien, who struggled with PTSD, and the results of his brain injury, slowly began building a new support group and mentoring others became one of his strengths. He shared his experience with groups and wrote encouraging articles for military publications. “I was traveling across the country speaking at bases for generals, corporations, and businesses.”
He also met Julie and her two small children in 2014. It was connection they and during a conversation at a birthday party that would later bloom into a serious romance, then marriage. After his first marriage, where overseas deployment caused him to miss his daughter growing up, he felt like he was being given a second chance.
But after a debilitating seizure in March of the following year, Zien again lost himself. ” That seizure fried more of my brain — my auditory processing, my cognitive processing, my memory, everything — I wasn’t able to write anymore,” he said. “Now I can’t even think of words and this time, it’s permanent.”
Zien fell back into deep depression.
“Finally, I thought, what’s happened has happened and it’s not going to come back,” he continued. “So I’m like, ok, this sucks, but I’m a damn survivor!” Though he had lost the ability to write, he got out a piece of paper and began to draw straight lines. Those straight lines turned into stick figures.
Discovering his new outlet, it became his way of communicating what didn’t make sense in his mind. “It became the way I communicated with Julie because I didn’t know how else to tell her how I felt,” he said.
And Zein’s new calling has him looking to help others who’ve experienced trauma in their life. “I want to use art to help people out there who are in positions like me and even worse,” he said. “I want to teach other people to use art as a release — not like hey, here’s a stupid tree — sure, I can teach some techniques, but I want to let people just express themselves on paper or canvas.”
Called ‘Art From the Heart of a Warrior,’ his idea now has a Facebook page where he invites people from all walks of life to discover their inner artist. “I tell people if you’re good at art, who cares? If you suck at art, who cares?” he continued, “No Pressure…after all, there are guys wearing girl pants nowadays.”
Likewise, he is hearing God’s call for him to build. “If I have feelings that I want to die today, I go and build a bench and feel better,” he said. “I’ve built things for others and it feels good to have someone else want something you made.” Like his art, building heals his soul.
“Everyday I still struggle so I have to remember what’s important,” he smiled. “I get to be a dad again and I get to help people like me.”
**Shortly after interviewing Zien, he found out that his service dog has a lesion that will eventually take her away from him. If you can offer assistance, please visit:
Art of the Heart of a Warrior
Keynote, Motivational & Inspirational Speaker
Retired United States Air Force