Dave Matthews Story




In a country like New Zealand, you would expect that everyone receives the same level of care after a major medical event. Unfortunately, Dave Matthews' experience is a testament to the fact that stroke survivors can't always access the critical care they need. 


Dave was 58, a police sergeant with over 30 years' experience as an officer, and he was preparing for his upcoming wedding in Rarotonga. On the Saturday before he and his fiancée Vicky were due to fly out, Dave got up to go for his usual run.

"I go running every morning, I do that religiously," Dave says. "I never drink, I don't smoke, I've always been into good health and fitness."

But something felt off. Dave's vision was altered, and his arms weren't responding to his attempts to pick up his clothes. Confused, he went back to bed and told Vicky that something was wrong. 

"She asked, 'Where do we live?'" Dave recalls. "I said I don't know. She asked, 'Where did you grow up?' I said I don't know."

While Vicky didn't know exactly what was wrong with Dave, she knew it was urgent that he get medical care as soon as possible. She called 111, which is when the first problem appeared: as they live in the Far North, their local hospital is not open on weekends, and the nearest other hospital is in Whangārei - more than two hours away.

Vicky was able to explain how urgent Dave's condition was, which meant that a helicopter was dispatched to transport him to Whangārei Hospital. Once there, doctors quickly identified that Dave was having a stroke, and he was able to receive clot busting treatment. This medication can reverse some of the effects of a stroke, but it can only be given to someone within 4.5 hours of the onset of stroke symptoms. This is why it is so important to seek medical treatment as soon as you suspect a stroke.

Despite getting medical attention quickly and receiving clot busting treatment, Dave still faced a tough road ahead. He remained in hospital for a couple of weeks, where it was clear that his cognitive abilities were affected by his stroke.

"I was struggling with simple things," he explains. "I didn't know what the seasons were."

After being discharged, Dave learned that living rurally meant that receiving care wasn't easy. As his stroke affected the speech centre of his brain, speech and language therapy sessions were critical for his recovery. However, publicly funded sessions were held over two hours away. Dave's stroke meant that he wasn't able to rive, and public transport wasn't an option, so he had to pay for private sessions closer to home.

A few weeks into his recovery, Dave had another setback when he slipped over and tore his quadricep muscle off the bone. His muscle needed to be reattached urgently, otherwise Dave would have risked not walking again. But the doctors were reluctant to put him under general anesthetic because there was a risk it could cause another stroke. So, Dave had surgery on his leg wide awake and numbed from the waist down.

"There was no pain, but I could hear everything," he recalls.

This meant that Dave now had two recoveries ahead of him: recovery from stroke and recovery from his leg injury. There two recovery journeys showed Dave another inequity in the New Zealand health system:  ACC.

Strokes generally are not covered by ACC, because it is seen as a "non-injury disability". But because Dave's leg injury was unrelated to his stroke, he was able to access ACC support. And while he was grateful, he was frustrated that he couldn't receive a similar level of care with regards to the aftereffects of his stroke. 

"It was hard, dealing with ACC who just weren't compassionate at all," Dave says. "They weren't interested in the stroke side of things; they were only interested in the leg."

Later on in his recovery, Dave learned the reason for his stroke: he had a patent foramen ovale (PFO), or a hole in his heart. A PFO can allow a clot to travel through the heart to the brain and cause a stroke. Dave was adopted as a baby and doesn't know any of his family medical history, so he was unaware of any hereditary risk factors or of his PFO until his stroke. In December 2023, he had a procedure to correct his PFO and close the hole.

Now, a year on from his stroke, and almost a year on from his leg injury, Dave is still on the road to recovery. Running is still off the table, and he sometimes still has issues with his speech. Despite this, he feels incredibly grateful that he received medical attention quickly. He has seen colleagues who had strokes but didn't get to hospital quickly face much worse outcomes.

"I was just so fortunate I had  Vicky there," he says gratefully. "She got onto everything so quickly and it was taken very seriously."

Dave feels especially lucky that his stroke happened while he was still in New Zealand and not while he was on a plane of at his wedding. There are no immediate plans to reschedule the wedding - right now, Dave and Vicky are still focused on his recovery and finding their new normal. 

Dave's advice is to know the signs of stroke and to get help immediately. "I would've died if it wasn't for Vicky," he says gravely. "The big thing is time. Get onto it right away."