A Vincentian Warrior

Oct. 17 started as a normal day for DePaul’s Liturgy Coordinator Matt Merkt. Merkt, known on campus for his sassy jokes, effortless pianist skills and contagious energetic spirit, had just come back from celebrating his cousin’s wedding the past weekend in Wisconsin. It was a typical Monday in the office, and Merkt was just going about his normal weekly duties. He had just finished his liturgy team meeting with the student leaders on campus that are involved with Sunday night Mass. Once he was sure they were all set for next Sunday, he moved to his next meeting of the evening at the St. Vincent DePaul Parish, to discuss if everything was all set for the various Masses. Halfway through that meeting Merkt noticed he wasn’t feeling like himself. However, he couldn’t put his finger on what was going on. He didn’t have the flu, and up until that very moment everything, health-wise, had been just fine.

He told his friend Suzanne Gillen, the associate music director at the parish, to grab him some water from the kitchen. Later he would learn that Gillen found this request quite odd. Why couldn’t he just grab the water himself?

Merkt assumed that he wasn’t feeling well because he hadn’t eaten anything. He hadn’t had breakfast that day, or lunch the day before. If he just ate something he would be fine.

Toward the end of the meeting, Merkt became quiet. The introverted-extrovert, as he calls himself, didn’t want to draw any attention. He asks Gillen if they could move privately to her office. He wanted to just sit and relax on her nice comfy couch.

“I said to myself, something is not right,” Merkt said. “I got up and I couldn’t walk.”

All eyes were on Merkt. Is he okay? Why can’t he walk?

Merkt, however, was still determined to get to that couch. His friend Robert Beatty, the director of music at DePaul’s parish, came in to say, “What is wrong with you?” After relaying to Beatty that he hadn’t been eating well, Beatty rushed to grab him some food from the kitchen. After Merkt had eaten, 10 minutes passed by, and the verdict was that food wasn’t the remedy.

“I was dizzy. I look at my phone and I could not text. I knew that was weird,” said Merkt.

Beatty suggested that Merkt go to the hospital. They immediately called 9-1-1, and paramedics arrived quickly to the school.

Merkt relayed to Gillen to text his roommates that he wouldn’t be coming home, and to let his mom know what was going on. Merkt then began to tell the medical team that he wasn’t on any drugs before they loaded him up into the ambulance. This was his last vivid memory. Halfway through the ride, Merkt blacked out. His memory would remain faded until Thanksgiving.

Merkt had suffered a stroke.

A Mother’s Worst Nightmare

Miles away in Wisconsin, Merkt’s mother received a text that every parent dreads to see. However, Debbie Merkt wouldn’t see that initial text from Gillen saying her son had been taken to the hospital; she was in the shower. In fact, she was too preoccupied by her trip to Ohio the next morning, for work, that she wouldn’t even check her phone. Instead, she would crawl straight into bed. It’s the call from the hospital – waking her up at 11:30 p.m. – that would send her rushing to Chicago.

She arrived at the hospital with her sister-in-law around 1 a.m. and was greeted by Gillen, Beatty and the Rev. Jeremy Dixon. An hour later, roommates and friends of Merkt started pouring into the hospital. Friends and family were then told that Merkt would head into surgery at 3 a.m.

Once surgery was underway, Dixon told Debbie that he would let Merkt’s boss, Amanda Thompson, know that he wouldn’t be in the next day. He headed off, along with Gillen and Beatty. Next to go, around 5 a.m., were the roommates, all having to head off to work not knowing the fate of their friend. Debbie was not left alone, however. Thompson joined her around 8 a.m. and stayed with her for the rest of the day.

Debbie could not fathom losing her son. Especially not right after losing her husband of 37 years, Matt’s father Thomas Merkt, this past July. Another blow like that would devastate her. But the following day she’s given a glimmer of hope assuring her that her son will be okay.  

“We were at lunch and we got back, [and someone] said ‘He’s moving, he opened his eyes when we talked to him,’” said Debbie. “Then, we knew he was going to be okay. But it was going to be a long road.”

The DePaul community along with crowds of family and friends were at Debbie’s side to assist her every step of the way. During that first week, while Debbie stayed at her son’s apartment, Thompson arranged transportation to and from the hospital. After having a conversation with the Rev. Patrick McDevitt, Thompson then arranged for Debbie to stay at the Vincentian Residence for the duration of Matt’s recovery.

It’s not long before Debbie developed a routine, with her housing set and the Residence being near the hospital. Every day during the week she visited her son in rehab downtown, and then on the weekends headed back home to Wisconsin to get her mail and see the family.

Before she knew it, it was mid-December and Merkt was well enough to go home. With students making frequent trips to come visit Merkt during his hospital stay, Debbie thought it’d be best that he stay at the Vincentian Residence during his recovery. McDevitt was quick to make these accommodations.  

“The Vincentians have been very good to us. They would do anything if we needed something,” said Debbie. “The VSCO Department was stopping every week when he was in the hospital. Their regular Wednesday meeting was [to] come and see Matt. Amanda comes over. While they’re visiting, I could just take a walk, which you need. You need to take a break.”

80281-310473 - Donyae Lewis - Jun 6, 2017 1256 PM - Matt and mom cubs gameDebbie and Matt are huge Cubs fans. Going to games together is one of their favorite pastimes. Photo Courtesy of Matt Merkt.

But Debbie needed more than just a break. She needed her son’s lively spirit back. It’s not an easy adjustment needing to have your mom by your side when you’ve been on your own since college. Debbie recalls those first months being bumpy, not having her son’s lovable personality that made their bond so strong. After weeks of them staying at the Residence, Debbie finally got her wish in January.

“There was something that happened and he just started giggling,” said Debbie. “He started to get his personality back. It was hard not to see that smiling, joking personality since October.”

With his spirit restored, this dynamic duo has been relentlessly walking down the road to recovery. Rehab every day, frequent trips to Sunday Mass at DePaul and the occasional trips up to Wisconsin together.

Debbie would do anything for her only child.“You just do what you have to do.”

Students and Friends Rally for a Speedy Recovery
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Matt celebrates a new addition to the family with friends Evan Snyder and Brian O’Neill. They were one of the many that showed support during his road to recovery. Photo Courtesy of Matt Merkt.

“It’s just me.”

This is the response that Matt Merkt had when he finally read the abundance of cards, letters, texts and social media posts that he received from around the world praying for his recovery. From friends in France sending him well wishes to a community of loved ones creating a GoFundMe campaign to help his mom pay for medical expenses, it’s apparent that Merkt has a crowd of people cheering him on with love and affection. These acknowledgments come as no surprise to anyone close to Merkt, but he admits that when he first came across all the posts he was caught off-guard.

“On Facebook, when you have a birthday and like 100 people wish you a happy birthday, that’s normal. When I posted for the [first] time [after the stroke], over 600 people liked my post,” Merkt said. “I was like, who cares about me? Apparently, a lot of people.”

80281-310473 - Donyae Lewis - Jun 6, 2017 1256 PM - Matt with students, matching tiesMatt Merkt poses with senior Ben Gartland and junior Matthew Verive. Photo Courtesy of Matthew Verive.

The last time junior Matthew Verive saw Merkt was at the liturgy team meeting, just hours before Merkt had suffered a severe stroke. Verive serves as Merkt’s liturgical musical assistant on campus, where he weekly assists Merkt with getting music together for both DePaul’s liturgical choir and orchestra. When it comes to his college experience, Verive credits Merkt for keeping him sane when life got too difficult. Ever since that fateful evening in October there has been a void in Verive’s life of not only his mentor, but his friend.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Matt’s not able to get things done right now, we got to get things done.’ Then Mass, that Sunday afterward, was my mental breakdown of complete bawling, realizing the gravity of everything,” Verive said. “It’s hard seeing someone perfectly fine and functioning and the next time you see them, it’s hard for them to talk. It was a shock that someone we loved so much was in such conditions.”

Junior Stephanie Lehocky, who works underneath Merkt within Catholic Campus Ministry, was taken aback when she first heard the news. Like Verive, she had saw Merkt the previous day, so when she found out what happened it came as a complete shock.

“It’s not like he’s old. It’s not like you would expect it to happen. It seemed surreal,” Lehocky said. “He’s an angel and such a beautiful presence in the office. I joined liturgical choir at the end of my freshmen year, and [I appreciated] how welcoming he was. It was mind-blowing how sudden it was. It broke my heart.”  

When Lehocky, along with Verive and a few other students, went to visit Merkt in the hospital this past December, she couldn’t help but feel grateful that they didn’t lose him.

“I had that moment of gratitude that he’s still alive,” Lehocky said. “Heaven forbid, if he was somewhere by himself something worse could’ve happened. So, I was at the point of just being happy to see him.”  

Verive, feeling an equal amount of gratitude to still have Merkt in his life, felt there was a need for the DePaul community to show how much they appreciated him. He decided to highlight two of Merkt’s passions, his love for people and liturgical music, and throw him and Gillen (who stepped in as Merkt’s replacement) a surprise concert. After coordinating with Dixon, several members of the choir and orchestra and even some alumni, they gathered Gillen and Merkt for a celebration they would cherish for a lifetime.

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The gang’s all here. Students gather to perform a surprise concert as a thank you to Matt Merkt. Photo Courtesy of Matthew Verive.

“I thought they probably would have a banquet, because we had one last year,” Merkt said. “I found out that they had met for the last three Saturday nights to rehearse. It was 25 people there, almost all of them. I was like, what?”   

For Verive and Lehocky, seeing the smile on Merkt’s face was priceless. Verive learned a lot of lessons from the events of the past few months, but one of the most important ones, he says, is that life has no plan.

“It’s not your plan, it’s God’s plan. You can’t sulk too much about things that happen. You have to accept that they happen and roll with the punches.”

Road to Recovery

80281-310473 - Donyae Lewis - Jun 6, 2017 1256 PM - Matt eating ice cream
Matt was beyond thrilled to have his first bite of Margie’s ice cream, post stroke. Photo courtesy of Katie Sullivan

There are many signs that Merkt is on the path to making a speedy recovery. He’s back to eating some of his favorite food, like McDonald’s french fries and Margie’s ice cream. His speech and walking has improved drastically. He even is back to playing piano, with him and Gillen giving an amusing rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” to the liturgical choir a few weeks back. Merkt in no shape or form wants people to feel sorry for him. Being in the spotlight is still something he’s getting used to. However, what this Vincentian warrior truly hopes for is to eventually retreat back into the shadows, spreading love and kindness without notice.  

“I’m a pianist, but I never wanted to be a concert pianist. I loved being an accompanist because you get to help people, but if you do it well, no one sees you,” Merkt said “I don’t want the show to be about me. My job is to make things happen. Make things beautiful, but hopefully no one knows what I’m doing.”


Header photo of Matt Merkt