Conquering the Impossible

The remarkable way, Matt Parzych, a Georgia Tech OMS Analytics student defied the odds after suffering from a severe traumatic brain injury.

December 08, 2023 | By GTPE Communications
Matt Parzych wearing graduation regalia

When software engineer Matt Parzych applied to Georgia Tech’s Online Master of Science in Analytics (OMS Analytics) program, his wife Erin had just reached the five-year mark of being cancer free. He had wanted to earn a master’s degree for some time, but his wife’s battle with breast cancer – and beating stage-one melanoma himself – helped shape how he would use the skills he’d gain.

During Erin’s medical scare, Matt learned everything he could about her specific type of cancer and became focused on genomics.

“I convinced Erin’s oncologist to enroll her in a clinical trial for a predictive diagnostic test that uses genetic biomarker data, combined with other patients' demographic, historical health data, and clinical-trial outcome results, to guide systemic therapy in early-stage disease.”

Through that experience, Matt’s interest in data science began to lean heavily toward a specialization in health care and life sciences. He discovered the OMS Analytics program and became laser focused on making the cut to get in.

“OMS Analytics was, by far, my top choice of programs to get into,” he said.

To Matt’s delight, the program accepted his application for a Spring 2019 start. His first course was ISYE 6501: Introduction to Analytics Modeling, which OMS Analytics Executive Director Joel Sokol teaches.

Everything seemed to be falling into place. Then, the unthinkable happened.


A Fight Like No Other 


Georgia Tech banner (left) that Matt's wife Erin hung in his hospital room while he was in a coma

Three days after completing Dr. Sokol’s ISYE 6501 course, Matt nearly lost his life when a Murphy bed he was helping a neighbor install broke loose from the wall. The entire bed, and its framing mechanism, collapsed on Matt’s head.

The blunt-force trauma resulted in a severe traumatic brain injury (sTBI) and Matt slipped into a coma. Even after a life-sustaining craniotomy and cranioplasty, the prognosis was grim. The effects of Matt’s injury, the medications trying to stabilize him, as well as his immobility and prolonged intubation, began to take its toll on the former triathlete’s body. He experienced seizures, pneumonia, diabetes, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, fever, and infection – all within two weeks.

“Even though Matt was in a coma, I talked to him about the wonderful life we’d built,” Erin recalled. “And I told him repeatedly how he was going to walk across that stage at Georgia Tech and graduate.”

She hung a Georgia Tech banner in his Intensive Care Unit (ICU) room and played videos of Dr. Sokol that she found online, so Matt could hear his voice.

“The medical field says that the last sense you have is your hearing,” she said, “and because OMS Analytics is an online program, Dr. Sokol’s voice had been a constant in our home. He was the soundtrack of our lives the semester before Matt’s injury.”

She also told Matt how she’d exchanged emails with Dr. Sokol to inform him about the accident and remove him from the summer course he’d enrolled in. In addition to expressing his concern and support, Dr. Sokol had told her that Matt earned a high grade in his course.

As she recounted the exchange to Matt, she told her high-achieving husband that she had good news and bad news. “The good news is that Dr. Sokol would love for you to be a TA. The bad news is you received the second-highest grade in his class; not the first,” she joked.

Miraculously, almost three weeks after the accident, Matt began to emerge from his coma. The first several days, his eyes were unfocused and vacant of awareness, but despite his primitive brain-stem state, and the counsel Erin was receiving from clinicians, she refused to entertain the possibility of placing him in a facility that didn’t have a strong focus on rehabilitation. 


Determined to Beat the Odds


Soon, Erin began petitioning to transport Matt from his St. Petersburg, Fla., hospital to Shepherd Center in Atlanta. As fate would have it, in addition to being world-renowned for treating and rehabilitating patients with brain and spinal cord injuries, the center is less than three miles from Georgia Tech.

Erin’s lobbying paid off and, once there, Matt began improving more quickly than anyone could have imagined. His recovery was still a battle every step of the way; however, his progress was both consistent and remarkable. Working through paralysis of the right side of his body was one of Matt’s biggest difficulties, but within weeks, he was even in the early stages of running again.

Less than 12 weeks after the accident, Matt graduated from Shepherd Center’s post-acute brain injury rehabilitation program called Shepherd Pathways. To Matt’s surprise, Dr. Sokol stopped by to offer well wishes and encouragement. They also discussed Matt becoming a TA for the course he’d completed just before the accident.

“It was a thoughtful gesture and really boosted my confidence,” said Matt.


A Master’s Degree with a Purpose  


Joel Sokel (left) visiting Matt Parzych (right) at the Shepard Center in Atlanta

Matt helped with ISYE 6501 that Fall term and audited other courses to gauge if he’d healed enough to be able to re-enter the program. The experience convinced him that he could handle it and he re-enrolled the next academic term.

As he progressed through his courses, few people knew about his recent brain trauma. He preferred it that way but knew a support system was there if he needed it. “I always felt that Georgia Tech had my back,” he said.

Over the next two years, he took the program’s health care-specific data analytics course and, when there was a project in any class, he intentionally chose health care-related subjects.

“It was great having the flexibility to focus on topics related to my interests,” he said. “I did a skin-care research project for one course and my practicum project, for a company called Nurse Bridge, entailed projecting rural counties’ mortality rates to help determine efficient placement of health care professionals.”

Dr. Sokol, who also oversees the end-of-program course, said Matt’s team practicum project was well thought out and that it left the company’s contact with a positive impression.

“In addition to demonstrating solid data science and analytics skills, their proposed solution had great insights and creativity,” said Dr. Sokol. "Matt has had a miraculous recovery, and I think he’ll be an outstanding data scientist.” 


Strong and Optimistic 


Matt Parzych in front of Tech Tower after participating in Georgia Tech Alumni's Pi Mile Race

Matt graduated from the OMS Analytics program in August – and with a 3.91 GPA.

Matt is quick to point out that he is an exception when it comes to sTBIs. He has met other patients who, through no fault of their own, remain unable to perform many everyday tasks and activities. He has been fortunate to relearn many things through the help of Shepherd Center and subsequent in Florida where he underwent physical, occupational, and speech therapy coupled with his trademark tenacity.

In addition, as Erin dreamed, Matt will participate in Georgia Tech’s upcoming commencement ceremony. In the meantime, he continues to do software consulting and is searching for a job in healthcare and life sciences, noting that a position involving brain injuries and brain-injury research would be a dream outcome.

“I want to help patients with similar challenges and feel extremely confident going out there and applying for jobs,” he said.

When Matt walks across the commencement stage mid-December, it will be a moment many thought was impossible. “That vision really pushed Matt forward,” said Erin. “It will be amazing to watch his journey come full circle.”


Written by: Patti Styles

Photos provided by: Matt Parzych