ELYRIA — Matt Karlovec has five goals he wants to accomplish since contracting an illness in 2013: marry his girlfriend Cathleen, work hard to get better, teach kindergarten, coach baseball and drive a car.
Matt Karlovec views the ring he purchased for his fiance Cathleen Trovato from Vandemark Jewelers, which he used to propose to her after months of training. The pair recently got engaged as Matt, who still suffers from the aftermath of encephalitis, trained to walk and get down on one knee to ask Cathleen to marry him. Every day presents its own unique challenges for the couple, but Matt and Cathleen work through the challenges and face them with positivity as Matt strives to reach his "5 Goals."
KRISTIN BAUER / CHRONICLE Enlarge
Karlovec met the woman he plans to marry, Cathleen Trovato, in 2009 when Karlovec was attending Heidelberg University in Tiffin and Trovato was at Capital University in Columbus. A sorority sister of Trovato’s introduced them.
After months of talking on the phone, Trovato invited Karlovec to a harvest-themed party at Capital where he showed up with a single pink rose, and they’ve been dating ever since.
The couple graduated from their respective colleges in 2010. Trovato went to work as a teacher for Hilliard Schools and Karlovec began his journey to getting a master’s degree from Ashland University.
In 2012, they began talking about marriage and Karlovec presented Trovato with a promise ring. Everything seemed to be falling into place for the couple’s future. Karlovec was a few credits away from receiving his master’s degree and was in his first year teaching at Clearview Schools in Lorain, and Trovato was getting ready to move from Columbus to Lorain County to be closer to Karlovec.
But on Feb. 7, 2013, their lives changed forever.
Trovato got a call from Karlovec’s mom, Mary. He was in a coma at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland after suffering several seizures. He had to be revived four times on the way from the Karlovecs’ Windbrook Court home to University Hospitals Elyria Medical Center before being transferred to Cleveland.
“The weather was so bad in February that they drove you in the ambulance instead of taking the helicopter,” Trovato tells Karlovec, whose short-term memory stopped working when he got sick.
A few weeks before ending up in the hospital, Karlovec had come down with the flu and a bout of laryngitis that wasn’t going away. His doctor prescribed an antibiotic, and on the day he had his first seizure, Mary Karlovec remembers her son complaining of the worst headache he’d ever had.
That night Mary Karlovec was awakened by the sound of moaning. Thinking it was just in a dream, she nodded off again. But then there was the noise again, the unmistakable sound of pain coming from Matt Karlovec’s room. She ran to him and found he had fallen out of bed and was on the floor seizing.
At the hospital, a nurse recognized the seriousness of Karlovec’s symptoms, identifying it as encephalitis.
After 10 days in the intensive care unit, Karlovec awoke from his coma, unable to speak or move. That year he had learned sign language to work with students with autism in Clearview Schools and was able to use his hands for some communication.
Mary Karlovec remembers a doctor telling the family to find a good nursing home because it was likely he would never walk or talk again.
Matt Karlovec has signs posted throughout his living space that focus on positive and uplifting messages. Matt constantly says, "I'm worth it" as he strives to reach his "5 Goals."
KRISTIN BAUER / CHRONICLE Enlarge
There’s not a lot information and research about encephalitis and there are several different kinds; Karlovec has viral encephalitis unspecified, which means the doctors don’t know where it originated.
In addition to losing the use of his left arm and right leg, Karlovec has sensitivity to light and sound, so he wears earplugs and sunglasses most of the time. His speech is starting to come back, but he talks in short and choppy sentences, often leaving out words, using just the first letter of the word or forgetting the word or phrase entirely. He has no peripheral vision, so he often is startled by someone walking up to him. Also, parts of his face sometimes quiver.
When Karlovec talks about encephalitis, he calls it “E” and pauses in the middle of a sentence as it takes him a long time to recall the right word.
Then there’s the memory loss. For Karlovec, the world around him stopped the day he got sick. In his mind, he’s still 27 and each day he wakes up thinking he just got home from classes at Ashland University.
His long-term memory is there, but he doesn’t remember experiences from a day ago.
His life is like a combination of “50 First Dates” meets “Groundhog Day,” Karlovec said. Trovato likens having a conversation with Karlovec to playing a game of 20 questions.
During an interview with The Chronicle-Telegram, Trovato reminds him he’s 32 and Karlovec shakes his head in disbelief that he’s aged. As a huge baseball fan, he’s also bummed to have “missed” the experience of seeing the Cleveland Indians in the World Series, but Trovato reminds him that he did in fact get to watch the game.
Through the ups and downs of the past five years, Karlovec has maintained a positive attitude.
Karlovec said his family tells him he was sad for about two hours after he woke up from the coma and then decided he was going to find a way to be happy no matter what.
He often tells Trovato, “I’m worth it.”
“Yes you are,” Trovato says back to him. “Even when I first met you I knew there was something different about you.”
She calls him an “old soul,” and he responds, “I’m not old,” and looks at her puzzled, not understanding the phrase. “You’re an old soul,” Trovato says again, emphasizing the world “soul.” It means, “you know things,” she explains.
Ever since getting sick, Karlovec and Trovato have developed their own language.
“When no one else knows the words, I always seem to figure it out,” she says. “Like for example, when you want to say ‘two peas in a pod,’ you say ‘two carrots,’ and I know what you mean by it.”
Karlovec looks at her, “It’s the same?” he asks. Trovato laughs and agrees, yes, it’s the same.
Though their life is drastically different, the couple still finds time to do things they love. At baseball games, Trovato says, it’s like before Karlovec got encephalitis.
“When we go to a baseball game that long-term memory comes out and you are able to talk like you never got sick.” Trovato tells him.
On Tuesday, after a year and a half of preparation, Karlovec proposed to Trovato, bringing him closer to being able to cross that goal off the list.
Like many couples, Karlovec’s preparation for the proposal involved picking out a ring at Vandermark Jewelers — a white gold band with a princess-cut diamond — and deciding the right place and time.
But Karlovec’s journey involved so much more. Over the last year and a half, his team at Mercy Regional Medical Center in Lorain, which he’s been with for nearly five years, built a custom bench so he could get down on one knee, and they used rubber washers so he could practice the dexterity needed to place a ring on Trovato’s finger.
He worked with a speech therapist on getting the words right. His physical therapist Rachael Orasko said every time he tried to say “marry” it came out like “murry,” but the team realized he could say “merry Christmas” no problem, so he practiced saying “merry” instead.
“He literally asked every person in the facility, ‘Will you marry me?’” Trovato said. “I was the last one.”
Cathleen Trovato and her fiance Matt Karlovec hold up "The Plan" for their proposal on Friday afternoon. The pair recently got engaged as Matt, who still suffers from the aftermath of encephalitis, trained to walk and get down on one knee to ask Cathleen to marry him. Every day presents its own unique challenges for the couple, but Matt and Cathleen work through the challenges and face them with positivity as Matt strives to reach his "5 Goals."
KRISTIN BAUER / CHRONICLE Enlarge
Months before the actual proposal, Orasko and Karlovec wrote a step-by-step list of every movement he would need to make to make the proposal work.
Trovato came to the hospital under the impression they were going to film a promotional spot for the physical therapy program, but she quickly realized what was happening when she saw the parallel bars, which Karlovec uses for his strength work, covered with ribbons and flowers and their friends and family standing around.
Weeks prior, Karlovec made a video for Trovato to watch when she arrived at Mercy that included pictures of the couple together, before and after he got sick, and thanked her for sticking by his side. Trovato retells the proposal to Karlovec, who, because of his memory problems, reacts as though he is learning he is engaged for the first time.
“There you are with all these people standing around and tears were coming down my face and it was just perfect,” Trovato tells Karlovec. “All the people that mean the most to us were there.”
When asked how he felt, Karlovec shrugs. He doesn’t remember, but when hearing about it, and watching a video shot by a friend, his hearts starts beating fast, he says.
“I’m very excited right now,” Karlovec said. “My heart is racing and my head is spinning, so I guess that’s what it was then, too.”
Now that Karlovec has asked Trovato to marry him, his next goal is to become a licensed coach again. He said he’ll have to wear a lot of protective gear but believes he’ll eventually be out on the field.
Orasko, Karlovec’s physical therapist, said she often has to stop him from working too hard because he’s so determined at meeting his goals.
“He’s always reminds me you can work through anything; you just have to keep pushing,” Orasko said. “He never gives up.”