FREEBORN, Minn. - For the past several years, Megan Matson has had a recurring nightmare. Her dream was always the same: She was at home, and her husband, Arik, was at work as a Waseca police officer. There was a knock at her door. When she answered, it was Arik's boss. He told Megan her husband had died. She always woke up before she found out how.
At 8:42 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2020 — the moment her nightmare became reality — Megan was in bed, drifting toward an early bedtime, when she heard a banging at her front door. Her two young girls were already asleep. At the door stood one of her closest friends and three police officers. What immediately struck her was that unlike in the nightmare, Arik's boss was not one of the cops.
"Arik's been shot, and it's bad," beckoned the friend, Lori Anderson. "I need you to come with me. Time is of the essence."
Paramedics put Arik on an air ambulance to North Memorial Health Hospital in the Twin Cities, and a separate Minnesota State Patrol helicopter was waiting to take Megan there as well. She called her parents to watch their daughters. A squad car sped Megan and her friend to the helicopter. A strange feeling of calm shrouded her, as if she'd done this before. As the helicopter flew north over snow-covered farm fields, the 30-year-old held Anderson's hands and prayed. She thought about her nightmare. That must have been God preparing her.
As the helicopter descended, Megan saw squad cars surrounding the Level I trauma center. The hospital hallway was lined with silent police officers. It felt like it went on forever. When she saw Arik, he seemed in a peaceful sleep: head bandaged and swollen, right eye blackened, a tube helping him breathe. She grabbed his hand before the surgery: "God has this," she said tearfully.
Then, for five hours, her life paused. As the brain surgeon worked, Megan prayed with her pastor. Every time the doors swung open, she hoped it would be the surgeon, Dr. Robert Roach.
It was around 4 a.m. when Roach strode up to Megan. She read his body language: slowly removing his surgical mask, eyes betraying no emotion, his body releasing a sigh. Megan's heart sank.
"In that moment," she said later, "I was like, 'Oh, my God — he didn't make it.' "
Then the surgeon spoke: "He's fine."
"I was pretty close to heaven that night," Arik Matson said later.
But Arik will never truly be fine again.
It has been one year since Arik and his boss were at Mis Tres Flores, a Tex-Mex restaurant off a tree-lined Waseca street, when a seemingly routine police call ended dinner abruptly: A prowler with a flashlight was in a backyard. Arik sped to the house a mile away. A moment later, shots rang out.
"It went from him and I sitting at dinner to five minutes later being life-changing," his boss, Sgt. Tim Schroeder, said.
A single bullet, fired by a 37-year-old meth cook who'd spent the majority of his adult life in prison, entered Matson's head above his right eye, exploded into his skull, tore through 6 inches of his brain and exited his right ear.
A split second of destruction.
Arik's days since then have been a journey of slow but steady progress. One year ago, Arik Matson could not talk. He could not see. He could not eat. He could not stand. He could not shower.
Today, he can do all those things, but differently than before. When he talks, it's with a bluntness common to people with a traumatic brain injury. When he walks, it's a slow shuffle, his left leg dragging. When he showers, it can be painful, like freezing needles on his skin.
Arik's year has been filled with instability: After four months at three Twin Cities hospitals, he left for a rehabilitation facility in Omaha. There, COVID-19 restrictions kept him from seeing family for seven months.
But there was one moment in the past year that was his most gut-wrenching. It had nothing to do with missing family. It had nothing to do with coming to terms with his new self. It was late May, and Arik stayed glued to the television, watching protests and riots in the Twin Cities after George Floyd's killing. He felt guilt: As a member of the SWAT team, he should be there to keep the peace.
And he felt anger: How could one tragedy seemingly flip the switch so quickly, from police officers being heroes — his family had felt an outpouring of love since his near-death experience — to police officers being villains?
Being a police officer has long been a central part of Arik's identity: father, husband, cop. Now he doesn't know if he'll ever be a cop again. He isn't even sure he wants to; it's too thankless. And he is a completely different person from a year ago. If so much of Arik has changed, shouldn't his profession change, too?
"I don't want this to come off wrong," Megan said, "but I didn't marry this Arik. I married the other Arik. So it's like one day you have the man you love, then the next day you have a total stranger."
Arik Matson grew up around cop life.
He started going with his dad, an Albert Lea police officer, on ride-alongs at age 10. It was a rough-and-tumble meatpacking town then, a southern Minnesota city of 18,000 with two dozen bars and lots of bar fights. He loved Dad flipping on the lights and speeding down streets.
After his sophomore year at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Arik changed his path, from math teacher to police officer. His dad was worried; Arik was the friendliest kid he'd ever known, the star high school third baseman and quarterback.
"I was worried if he'd be tough enough or mean enough," Tim Matson said.
He became a sheriff's deputy in Freeborn County, a cop who calmed heated situations instead of amping them up, who let speeders off with a warning if they simply told him the truth.
It was 2011 when he pulled over a black Oldsmobile Alero speeding down Hwy. 13. The driver was a petite blonde, gorgeous, a former high school cheerleader late for work at Applebee's. He gave her a warning. Not long after, he went to Applebee's for $5 pitcher night and noticed a waitress: Megan, the woman he'd pulled over.
Their first date was on Arik's boat. Within a year, they were pregnant, engaged, and bought a house next door to Megan's parents in Freeborn. Soon they married.
Life had a steady upward trajectory. They had two daughters: Audrina, now 8, and Maklynn, now 6. The couple rarely fought. Some days, Arik woke hours before sunrise to hunt ducks on Freeborn Lake before work. He was a hardworking cop who wanted to become a sergeant, so he took on extra tasks, leading the SWAT team and becoming the D.A.R.E. officer at Waseca schools. The family found the perfect church, Hope Church in Albert Lea. The church awakened something in Megan, as if God was steeling her for something profound.
On New Year's Eve a year ago, the Matsons went to dinner in Rochester with two couples: Tim Schroeder and his wife, and Lori Anderson and her husband. Anderson remembered how abundant the love between the Matsons felt, Arik the tall, muscular, doting husband and father, and Megan the sarcastic, blue-eyed spitfire, her yin to his yang.
"There are dads, and then there are daddies," Anderson said. "That man lived for Megan and the two girls."
"Before Arik got injured," Megan said, "he was like every girl's Prince Charming they wished they could have. There's only a few of those types of guys out in the world left. And he was one of them.
"I was hard to love. I'm a strong-willed woman. And the night he got injured, our roles just completely reversed."
It's strange to think of Arik Matson as lucky. In so many ways, he was incredibly unlucky: Because he responded to the call that night, because the prowler ended up being an armed fugitive, because one bullet flew straight at Arik's head.
And yet when Roach, the neurosurgeon, looked at the brain scan that night, he saw optimism: not just that Arik could live but that Arik could live well. This, Roach said, "is not often what runs through our minds when someone gets shot in the head."
The injury was confined to the right side of Arik's brain, mostly the right frontal lobe. The bullet had not penetrated the deeper centers of his brain or damaged Arik's dominant left hemisphere, which is responsible for communication, speech and understanding.
The surgeon's main goal was to relieve pressure on the brain. Roach stitched up Arik's dura, the protective sheath between the skull and the brain, to ensure spinal fluid didn't leak and to reduce infection risk. Roach placed a pressure monitor inside Matson's head, reassembled the fractured skull and went to brief the family. He was struck by Megan's calm.
The surgeon told Megan the specifics of his injury, and that there could be long-term effects on judgment, impulsivity and memory. All Megan heard was this: He made it.
"But we all knew how dire it was," said Anderson, her friend. "Was he going to be a vegetable? Who is he going to be if he does actually wake up and survive this? We were all so grateful that he was alive. And yet we were wondering: What's it going to be like when we see him?"
Arik lay in a dark hospital room. Head swollen. Machines beeping. His black eye slowly dissipating. Megan knew he was in there, but for a couple of weeks, his only response was squeezing her hand.
Staff told Megan they planned to wake Arik from his induced coma. Things could go two ways: Either he'd be fine, or he'd be very, very angry. Doctors told her not to take it personally.
They woke him. Megan grabbed his hand: "Babe, I love you!"
He pushed her away. He didn't know where he was. He did not remember anything.
"No!" he said. "I have not been shot!"
As doctors sedated him, Megan walked out and bawled. This man was angry, and not like her Arik.
By March 31, when Arik was admitted to QLI, a well-regarded neurological rehabilitation center in Omaha, the country was in pandemic lockdown. Megan and their daughters could not visit. After Arik moved into the 10-bedroom House 5, Megan did not know when she'd see him next.
At first, two staffers had to help Arik stand to keep him from toppling. He could not dress himself. He told staffers he was homesick and unmotivated. After a five-minute phone call with family, he'd lay his head on the table, exhausted. He had to relearn things that had been second nature: picking up a fork, brushing his teeth.
An injured brain is retrained through repetition, which builds new neural pathways. This is not easy. Think of it like your daily drive to work. Despite the complexity of the highway system — ramps and exits and stoplights and bridges — it's automatic. But one day the drive is interrupted by construction. Finding a new route takes practice. In time, that new route becomes automatic. Arik is creating detours in his brain.
"Therapy's hard," said Melissa Anderson, a QLI occupational therapist. "He didn't used to have to think about how to open a jar."
Arik's language was mostly fine. So was the right side of his body; he could throw a football or baseball like before. But his left arm and hand functioned like an 85-year-old arthritic's. It was difficult to move his left arm. He couldn't grasp anything with his left hand. He had little vision on his left side.
At night during his 40-plus hour weeks of rehab, Arik would stare at the wall and pray. "Why did you save me?" he'd ask God. "Why did this happen?" When he shared his despair with his wife, Megan had a ready reply: "God chose you for a reason, as hard as that may sound," she said. "He has a purpose for us." Sometimes, he'd want to quit. But staffers reminded him what he was fighting for: To be a dad again. To be a husband again. To hunt again. To live again.
When his pregnant speech-language pathologist came in, Arik would ask about her baby, due in summer. He spoke of the magic of holding a baby for the first time, and he wept.
His improvements were measured over months, not days. There were little markers of success: standing on his own; taking 30-second breaks in therapy instead of 10-minute rests, going for an assisted walk around the duck pond.
One morning in August, not long after a seizure and not long before Arik's 33rd birthday, an occupational therapist, Corey Cundall, roused him. It was beautiful outside, and Cundall suggested a walk. Arik walked tentatively — he'd regressed since the seizure — and Cundall steadied him as he shuffled down the dock.
"Look who that is down there," Cundall said.
A woman stood at the end of the dock. Arik squinted. For 10 seconds, he was quiet as his brain processed: It was Megan. "You're here!" he shouted. It was the fastest Arik had walked since his injury.
Two months later, it was time to go home.
Retraining the left side of your body is grueling work.
Arik's task one recent afternoon: Use his left hand to pick up a 2-inch plastic peg affixed to a foam board.
Arik hesitatingly reached forward with his left arm. His fingers curled toward his palm. He tried to squeeze his thumb and forefinger together.
He knocked the peg to the ground.
He started over.
He dropped it again.
After 10 unsuccessful tries, he picked up a peg.
"Nice job!" said Rachel Schei, an occupational therapist at this Mayo Clinic location in Albert Lea.
The menial activity had purpose: A charity, Hometown Hero Outdoors, had gifted Arik a "dream hunt." Arik chose a January 2022 trip to Alaska to hunt king eiders, the rarest North American duck. A Twin Cities company, Rogue Productions, is filming a documentary of the trip. Arik wanted to be able to handle his shotgun again.
At the Albert Lea clinic, Schei cued him: Lift your upper arm, then your elbow. Straighten your elbow, then open your fingers. Arik had to think through every step.
"I felt like I was reaching all the way across the room there," Arik said.
His arm was reaching only 18 inches. He was exhausted. It had been 20 minutes. He still had an hour of physical therapy here and an hour of occupational therapy at home.
An iPad perched in front of him, Arik sat at his kitchen table, tired and hungry. Spread out before him was a Wendy's feast: four orders of spicy chicken nuggets and two Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers. He joked he should bottle his metabolism and sell it.
An occupational therapist greeted him on the iPad. She'd planned therapy activities to include his daughters. First, the family made Elmer's Snow Slime. Next, they played Scattergories. The occupational therapist gave them a dozen categories and set a timer.
"You better make it just eight categories," Arik said. "I'm supertired."
One of the symptoms of his injury is that he says exactly what is on his mind, and within minutes Arik was tired of it all.
"I'm done with this dumb game," he said.
"You're supposed to be working on your brain," his wife soothed him.
The therapist gave him new categories. The girls had lost interest and headed to the basement. Megan stood and accidentally stepped on his foot. Arik exploded.
"Don't [expletive] say sorry!" he yelled. "That's what you always say."
"I didn't see your leg down there."
"Hey, stop with the swearing."
"I don't have to. It's my house."
Arik paused. He looked down. It was as if, inside his brain, the old Arik was scolding him.
"Can you tell me what you're thinking?" the therapist said.
"I need to go to sleep because I'm tired and swearing."
"That's good awareness," she said. "What we can work on is telling us before you get to that point."
It was late afternoon, the sun low in the sky. The personal care assistant put Arik to bed. Megan turned on a baby monitor. "Who would have ever thought I'd need a baby monitor for my husband?" she said.
Arik and Megan still have big dreams. To walk on uneven surfaces, like the backyard, by summer. To get a bill passed to increase prison sentences for attempted murder of a peace officer, since many call Minnesota's guidelines inadequate. To teach D.A.R.E. classes again. To tell their story at churches and schools and police departments. To do a book, maybe a movie. Therapists put no ceiling on his progress.
But no matter how successful Arik is in rehab, a big chapter of the family's life is forever lost. He misses so many things: throwing his girls in the air, chasing them in the backyard, jumping on the trampoline. Megan misses when he surprised her with flowers or coffee. She misses the love notes he'd scatter throughout the house and the way he used to look at her. All that is gone. She doesn't know which parts of the old Arik will come back.
"Yeah, I have Arik back — but I'm still a single mom," she said. "I don't have my husband any longer. It's not his fault this happened to him. I didn't sign up for this. But I signed up to be with him. We're married till death do us part. Right?"
Megan caught herself. She's not one to mince words. Still, she worried how Arik would feel if he heard this. His bedroom door was open 15 feet away.
She checked the baby monitor. But Arik was fast asleep.