‘God Is Not Through With Him Yet’

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Matt Davis, sitting, and his mother Leslie, at right, smile when emcee Robert Troiano joshed at how Matt managed to keep his hair after all his brain surgeries. At right is North Hempstead Councilwoman Viviana Russell and at center is Nassau County Legislator Siela Bynoe, both of whom helped organize the caravan. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

Westbury’s man long road to recovery

For more than one glorious hour, Matt Davis sat at the front of his driveway and forgot about the soul-crushing year he’s experienced.

He could drive from his mind the risky neurosurgeries in January, followed by painful rehabilitation. Or the near-fatal hit-and-run just blocks from his house in July. And the subsequent life-saving brain surgery and agonizing recovery that followed.

On Saturday, Nov. 21, Davis and his mother Leslie watched a parade of more than 100 cars, including a Westbury Fire Department firetruck and police cruisers, stream past their house on King Street in Westbury. They had assembled at nearby Powells Lane Elementary School.

Family, friends and visitors—all properly masked—mingled in the driveway, enjoying the unseasonably warm temperatures while Diverse Entertainment’s speakers boomed out appropriate songs.

With the help of a cane, the 21-year-old had walked from inside his house, which is being renovated to aid his rehab. It was another big step in his recovery; weeks before, he could not stand without help.

Behind his mask, Davis’ eyes frequently expressed his hidden smile as honking cars went by and he spotted familiar faces waving at him. The same thing happened when he listened to speeches by politicians and officials on hand to greet him and wish him well. These included state Senator Anna Kaplan, North Hempstead Clerk Wayne Wink, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran and Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder.

Three Davis family friends, Westbury School District Board of Education President Robert Troiano, Nassau County Legislator Siela Bynoe and North Hempstead Councilwoman Viviana Russell, along with the Nassau County Police Department, organized the caravan to lift up the spirits of Davis, a 2017 graduate of Westbury High School. Troiano also served as emcee at the celebration.

Davis has been home from rehab since Oct. 19, recovering from a July hit-and-run that nearly took his life. He is fighting to overcome a second paralysis in a year of near-tragedy and hope.

Head Surgeries

Robert Troiano, who submitted this photo of Matt Davis after he came home, also supplied one of Davis in the hospital, and noted the dramatic improvement. (Contributed photo)

The strapping 6-foot-2, 260-pounder has suffered from epilepsy from an early age. In his late teens, he started getting the worst symptoms of the disease, grand mal seizures. With pharmaceuticals proving ineffective, Davis agreed to undergo a series of brain operations led by Dr. Ruben Kuzniecky and his team at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

According to Troiano, the “three complex and risky surgeries” would “remove the part of his brain that was believed to be causing the convulsions. A year went into the planning, including designing and manufacturing specialized surgical equipment.”

A side effect of the operations, which helped suppress his seizures, was that Davis experienced paralysis. Leslie Davis told Anton Media Group that “Matthew did a miraculous thing, because he [recovered] quicker than they thought. And he was able to do within six months the things they told me he wouldn’t be able to do for 12 months, Because that was his determination. He didn’t care what anybody said. He wanted to walk. He wanted to do everything he did before the surgeries.”

Matt had fully recovered and—with medication—had the epilepsy under control. On the night of July 23, he pleaded with his mother to let him go out for the first time on his own and she reluctantly gave her assent. He met up with a friend and they went to a deli on nearby Prospect Avenue in the New Cassel section. As they were crossing the street at the corner of Magnolia Avenue, a speeding car lost control, jumped the median and struck both men. Davis’ friend suffered a broken femur while Davis landed on his head, causing brain damage and internal bleeding.

Robert Troiano helped to organize the caravan and also served as emcee. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

Davis was taken to Nassau University Medical Center (NUMC), where doctors stabilized him and put him in a medically-induced coma. He was then flown by helicopter to Lenox Hill Hospital. Again, he was operated on by the same surgeons who had performed his original brain surgery.

Leslie Davis told the assembled, while fighting tears, how she, ex-husband Michael “Big Mike” Davis and Bishop Lionel Harvey of the First Baptist Church of Westbury were waiting to go see Matt at NUMC before his medical flight.

“They didn’t know if he was going to make it,” Davis related. “And only two people could go upstairs because of COVID. And I said that I’ll forfeit my visit and give it to Bishop because I wanted to make sure that if Matt didn’t make it, he was going to go to heaven. Because he didn’t do anything wrong.”

Davis told Anton Media Group that she and Matt had recently seen Dr. Kuzniecky. The surgeon told them the current paralysis—Matt has no use of his left arm from the elbow down, including his hand—is different from the post-surgery one and will take longer to overcome.

Having Their Say

Matt Davis talks to Bishop Lionel Harvey of the First Baptist Church of Westbury. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

Bishop Harvey has been like a surrogate father to Matt, Leslie told Anton Media Group, and has been with them every step of the journey. On Nov. 21, Troiano asked the preacher to say a prayer.

Harvey expressed thanks that “God is not through with [Matt] yet. Be thankful that we’re at a celebration, and not at a funeral. Continue to encourage him, bless him and stir up the gifts that are within him.”

The bishop concluded, “We thank him for the great testimony that he will have.”

Troiano quipped, “Everybody stay around to watch Bishop get on that tricycle and ride out of here” (laughter), referring to Harvey’s three-wheeled motorcycle.

Laura Curran told Troiano, “Thank you and Siela and Viviana for organizing this. We’re just here very simply to say to Leslie and to Matt that we are here for you. We love you. You see the support. There is nothing like Westbury love.”

Wayne Wink said, “Matt, thank you for being a reminder to me that there is no place like home. Because in the days and months since this pandemic started, so many of us spend so much time at home. Maybe we spend too much time at home. But the important thing to remember is that we have a home to come home to.”

He added, “The home is not just your beautiful house. The home is the family. The home is your friends. The home is everyone who has missed you and is so glad you’re back.”

Wink hoped that one day these troubling times for Matt will have become a distant memory.

Matt Davis chats with Nassau County Executive Laura Curran while his mother Leslie looks on. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

“I wish you nothing but blessings and love. And please get well soon,” he concluded.

Anna Kaplan, of whom Troiano observed, “In Albany, they call her ‘Senator Westbury,’” even though she hails from Great Neck, said she was “adopted by Westbury. I am a Westburian. It’s honor to wear that hat.”

To the Davises the senator said, “Thank you for inviting us here. For having a celebration in a period that is really dark for us.”

She was impressed by Matt’s will and courage, and added, “But it’s nothing new. You’ve had that spirit since you were 5 years old. God bless you and God bless your wonderful mother. Leslie, we love you. There is nothing like Westbury love.”

Viviana Russell stated, “Mattie, you know how this family feels about you and your family. We pray that every day you have a renewed strength and renewed determination. And that every day gets brighter and better for you.”

She thanked Troiano, of whom she said, “He not only cares about this community, but makes everything very personal.”

Russell concluded, “We will support you and we are here for you any time that you need us.”

Siela Bynoe also thanked Troiano for “encouraging not just the Westbury community, but the greater Nassau community to come together and support Matt.”

She spoke of how close she and the Davises, along with the family of Rodney Caines, were.

“And so when I heard the news about Matthew, in the wee hours of the morning, we fasted, we prayed, we rallied around Leslie,” Bynoe related. “But Robert knew exactly what she would need. She would need the help of this community. As the news traveled, I spoke with the police commissioner about the case.”

The Westbury Fire Department joined the caravan. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

A GoFundMe account was set up by Troiano, and Ryder was one of the first contributors, Bynoe stated, adding, “And it’s that kind of love that will carry Matt through. The commissioner got on the phone and within 24 hours had raised $3,000 (applause). But it didn’t stop there. We had contractors that lent their services. Architects that lends their services. We know that Matt has a long way to go. And we know there’s more needs to be met. But we vow here today, that we won’t stop pushing until we see Matt back walking on his own two feet. So God bless you Matthew. God bless all those who prayed from their hearts. Prayed till it hurt. We appreciate it. And I’m praying.”

Troiano said that Ryder “is here not in an official capacity, but because its become personal for him and he wants to see Matt get better. He took a real interest in Matt’s story. And that’s true for everybody that’s here.”

Ryder said, “Matt, I don’t know you, I never met you. But in the last several months I’ve learned about the strength that you have, the struggle you’ve been through and the love that this community shows. You take about police reform? Look around. This is the face of reform. This is what we do, working together as a community.”

The day after the incident, he said, he got a phone call from Legislator Bynoe and he in turn informed the county executive. And Curran’s response, he said, was, “‘Do everything we can to help the family.’ That’s what we do here in law enforcement.”

Ryder continued, “I get these phone calls from Legislator Bynoe at the strangest hours. And she doesn’t call me commissioner. She says ‘Ryder’ and I know I’m in trouble (laughter). And she told me the story and she told me about the GoFundMe page and I said, ‘I’ll do what I can.’ And I get my daughter to help me and I make a donation and she calls me back the next morning and says, ‘Ryder, you gotta do better than that.’”

After the laughter had died down he said, “The truth is, I have a good relationship with Legislator Bynoe. We do a lot of work together for the community. And it is those hours that we spend talking that help us bond and do the right thing. And she gave me a list [of expenses] and I said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’ And I turned to my friends at the Indo American Association for Change (IAAC) and I said, ‘I need help.’ And they said, ‘Whatever you want, commissioner. We’ll be there for you.’”

He asked the IAAC reps to come up and accepted the check for $3,300 for renovation expenses. Deepak Bansal, the president of the IAAC, which is based in Hicksville, was on hand.

They presented the check to Matt and posed for pictures. Then the commissioner grabbed it from his hand and said, “You can’t keep that. We have to pay the bills.”

Support Group

Matt Davis and his mother Leslie wave to well wishers in the caravan. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

Rodney Caines, a close friend of the Davis family who serves on the Westbury school, fire and water district boards, told Anton Media Group that Matt suffers from occasional depression.

He is part of a group of people that the Davises depend on for support and include the caravan organizers as well as Matt’s godfather and Leslie’s longtime friend, Keith Boxley (aka Keith Shocklee/Shockley of Public Enemy/Bomb Squad fame).

“Every time I’m at my lowest point I reach out to Rodney because I don’t know how men think. I don’t know what motivates them,” Leslie Davis told Anton Media Group.

She related how her ex-husband Mike bought Matt his first car in this interval. She admitted to being annoyed with this move, being that she was dealing with the struggle to make the house accessible for her son.

“And I called Rodney and I said, ‘You have to help me through this.’ Because I wasn’t thinking like his dad was thinking,” Leslie related. “And [Rodney] gave me a profound explanation. He said, ‘Leslie, it’s called motivation.’ And I never thought along those lines. It’s something that he could work towards, and that will give him motivation.”

Leslie, a cosmetology instructor at BOCES Barry Tech in Westbury, also mentioned her colleague Robin Morgan, who taught Matt in her videography and film class and is still involved in his recovery.

“I’m so grateful and thankful because she pushes him but she knows when to stop,” Davis said, adding that part of the rehab is to entice Matt to take up his love of filmmaking again via equipment that will spur his creativity.

“I got him a computer. Because it was essential for us to get him things to motivate him. To make him happy,” she said. “I’m frugal. I don’t come from a lot of money. But my biggest thing was making sure that his essentials were taken care of. To make sure that the house was compliant for him.”

Troiano described how Matt had recovered fully and overcame a paralysis brought on by the complex operations.

“Thank God, the seizures are gone today (applause and cheers). That’s due to the hands of the surgeon and the hand of God. And that’s due to the hard work of Matt Davis,” Troiano said. “And that’s why we are here, Matt, due to your determination and your grit. Your perseverance. Your indomitable spirit. Your character. We understand how much you’ve gone through and how much you’ve done.”

He continued, “Leslie doesn’t talk a lot about the emotional status that she’s been through. But you can just imagine. Having a son with epilepsy. And who fully recovered. And then gets hit by a hit-and-run driver and gets thrown into the air and [lands on] his newly repaired head.”

He called Leslie Davis up to talk and she was reluctant at first, and when he handed her the mic she immediately thanked Troiano and his wife Sharon, “who have been like family.”

“It’s hard because when you think you’ve done it all, there is still something else to do,” she told the assembled. “Because as parents, that’s what you want, for your child to have a normal life. And for somebody to rob him of that [hurts]. But I prayed, and my bishop was right there with me and my church family was with me and all of you were there with me and you prayed.”

Part of the caravan of cars that assembled at Powells Lane Elementary School. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

Davis concluded, “I just want you guys to now that every act of love, every act of kindness, every donation, every dinner, every encouraging word, anything anybody here has done for me means the world because sometimes, you feel like you’re by yourself, and nobody understands the struggle. But Westbury love is real love. And I do want you to know, Nassau County love is real love.”

Troiano took the mic again and asked Matt how, after all those had surgeries, “You still look damn good and have a full head of hair,” to laugher, eliciting a smile that was visible through Matt’s mask.

He thanked all those who participated and the Third Precinct for coordinating this event. He also acknowledged Barry Green from the water/fire district, and the fire department, which supplied a firetruck despite a short notice.

“One last round of applause for the star of the show, Mr. Matthew Davis,” Troiano said, and the DJ started playing “One Love” by Bob Marley and the Wailers.

The day after the caravan, Leslie Davis told Anton Media Group, “I am grateful for everything that happened yesterday. Matthew and I were overwhelmed with the outpouring of love that we were afforded. I want people to continue to keep us in their prayers and know that we are working toward Matt being 100 percent.”

Matt, Mother Talk

Leslie Davis said her son is a man of few words. In a brief phone interview with Anton Media Group he was asked, “What are you dreaming about now, as far as your future?”

He replied, “I’m not dreaming, obviously. I just want to get my hand to work.”

“Have you reached the point where you can say, ‘This is what I want to do with my life?’”

“Not right now, at least. I just want to reach normality.”

Leslie asked her son, “In a perfect world, where would you like to see yourself?”

He replied, “Hopefully in New York [City] making independent films.”

Leslie related, “He told Newsday, ‘I just want everybody to love each other.’ That really warmed my heart, because that’s how I raised him.”

Regarding the caravan, she said, “I was so overwhelmed. Robert never told me the magnitude of what was going to happen. He said, ‘I want to do a caravan.’ This was like, two days before. To say ‘Thank you’ and to boost Matt’s spirits because he’s gone through a lot, not only physically but emotionally. At 21, it’s hard for him to adopt and adapt. You’ve come so far, and then you got beat down again.”

“When I came out of my house, I thought it was the color guard,” she said of what turned out to be the NCPD Explorers. “Because Matt was part of the junior ROTC. I thought, ‘Who are they?’ because they were in blue, I had no clue.”

Then she started seeing the politicians and asked herself, “What the heck is going on?”

Matt, she said, started to get his clothes together that morning. “He wanted to look decent.”

She stated, “Everything that people do for him motivates him. When something like this [caravan] happens, it changes his whole demeanor. That means more to me [than the monetary contribution] right now. Because I’m not only trying to keep him physically healthy, but learn how to keep the mental health.”

Commissioner Ryder’s presence was a big deal, she observed.

The assembled crowd poses for a photo. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

“Just to see the police commissioner here made Matthew know that they didn’t forget about him. And that’s what he asked me. He said, ‘Mommy, did they catch the guy yet?’ And I said, ’No.’ And he said, ‘Did they forget about it? Is the case dead?’ He really thought that [the police] didn’t take his case seriously. So when he saw [the commissioner] and it was public, he was happy. He said, ‘Mommy, they didn’t forget about me.’”

She added, “He’s a good kid. Everybody who was there had a personal relationship with Matthew. He’s wholesome. He never did drugs. He never drank. He never did anything to hurt anybody.”

Though she’s used to being in the public eye as a former school board member and head of the Westbury chapter of the NAACP, Davis said she’s a private person.

“I don’t share my family, my personal life with people. I shield myself,” she observed. “That’s why people were bugging out. They told me, ‘You never told us this.’ My parents always told us to be quiet and keep your family stuff personal.”

Money Woes

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran greeted the Nassau County Police Department Explorers on hand for the celebration. Explorers are youth who are thinking of going into law enforcement careers and are sponsored by the police department. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

Troiano, who once was a member of the Nassau County Legislature, credited his former aide Denise Thompson for encouraging him to start a GoFundMe account to help defray the costs of renovating the house for Matt’s rehab, Troiano started a GoFundMe page that, as of Nov. 21, had exceeded $25,000 target. As this story was posted it was nearing $29,000.

The money will be used for work that has to be done in the house and also for bills that have to be paid. Troiano said he was outraged that the insurance company forced Matt to come out of the rehab before he really wanted to.

“He’s working hard at home to complete the recovery, and some of the money is helping him buy the equipment to help him do that,” Troiano said, and went on to note that the family got a bill from the rehab center for nearly $150,000 that the insurance company refuses to pay.

He encouraged people to contribute so that “Matt is covered and Leslie doesn’t have any stress about how she’s going to pay off her bills.”

Troiano praised EOC owner Ever O. Cruz for not charging labor for putting in three expanded doors just before Matt came home in October.

With additional donations, as well as a $5,000 contribution from the Davises’ neighbors, the Islamic Center of Long Island, the fund to rehabilitate the house passed $36,000.

Leslie Davis told Anton Media Group that the medical bills top $250,000, the vast majority from the consequences of the hit-and-run.

“The bills just keep on coming,” she said. “My insurance company carried Matthew when he had the brain surgeries. But because it was an auto accident, they said I had to go through no-fault.”

But of course, because the suspect hasn’t been caught yet, there is no liability insurance to pay out the medical benefits.

“I called [Troiano] crying one day because the bills were coming in and I said, ‘Rob what am I going to do?’ And he gave me words of wisdom. He said, ‘Leslie, put them in a corner and take care of your son.’ And I know I’ll have to deal with that when I have to deal with it. But now, if I stress out over those bills and have a stroke and die, who’s going to deal with Matt?” she said.

Investigation Continues

Leslie Davis holds up a poster expressing many people’s sentiments as Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder (in blue sweater) and County Legislator Siela Bynoe (at far left) look on. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

In an interview with reporters, Ryder said of the investigation into the hit-and-run, “Our homicide guys are working around the clock on it. We have some great leads. We want to get the young man who hit Matt. He may have car insurance that will help with medical bills. [Also,] he has to answer for the crime he committed. Ryder asked his Crime Stoppers board to increase the reward from the usual $5,000 to $10,000. Tips are welcomed at 1-800-244-8477.

 

“We’ll find him,” Ryder said of the suspect. “There’s some evidence that we have. I can’t discuss it because of the ongoing investigation. But when the time comes that he’s arrested—and he will be arrested—we will release all of that and let you know exactly how he got here. The word has to come from the media. We have to let people know that there is a young man who is suffering because somebody was speeding in a car and lost control of it and struck him, It was not intentional, we don’t believe that. But again, you drive at a high rate of speed down a street like Prospect Avenue, and somebody is going to get hurt.”

 

The car was a foreign make, according to police department spokesman Richard LeBrun.

Touching again on the tragedy, Ryder said, “Matt had to go back and get more brain surgeries. It’s amazing he’s alive. [You see] the love and support of the community here today. The police department made some donations. It’s all for a good kid who didn’t deserve it, who’s had a lot of bad luck in life. So he’s going to try to turn it around. They thought he wasn’t going to make it. It’s amazing that he’s here today and the strength that this young man has.”

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Frank Rizzo is a journalist at Anton Media Group. With decades of experience in the industry, he is exceptionally equipped to cover local politics, business and other topics that matter to readers.

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