PITTSBURGH (AP) —
Dan Leger and Tim Matson started their lives over in a hospital, slowly rebuilding their physical strength and finding the fortitude to learn how to walk again after both were seriously wounded during the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018 that left 11 people dead.
As they healed, they formed a friendship.
Mr. Leger, 73, is a third-generation nurse and hospital chaplain who was at the Squirrel Hill synagogue to worship on that Oct. 27. As he lay in intensive care after being shot in the torso, his wife, Ellen, told him Officer Matson, the Pittsburgh SWAT officer who saved his life, was recuperating on the same floor, just down the hall.
So, Mr. Leger set a physical therapy goal — to walk to the officer’s room so he could thank him.
He made it there one day, but the officer was out of the room. He told himself, “OK, this is a practice run.”
Mr. Leger later walked, with the help of his walker, back to the officer’s room, and, “We saw each other as human beings.”
Officer Matson had been shot seven times. For 12 weeks, he said during a phone interview, “My left arm was in an external fixator,” which he described as “two rods that they screw into your forearm and upper arm. It keeps your arm bent.
“I learned to walk again. My left arm is damaged. They rebuilt my elbow. I had to get some function back in my left elbow,” he added.
His hometown of McKees Rocks, where he grew up in the Bottoms neighborhood of Presston, held a fundraiser for him. Letters poured in regularly from people he did not know.
“I got a letter from people in Israel. And Ireland. My hospital room was just covered in letters. They were all on my wall in my room, from different states,” he said.
“The overwhelming support that I got from outside the police community was just very humbling. It also helped motivate me.”
As a hospital chaplain, Mr. Leger knew how much grit human beings require to recover, mentally and physically, and how essential it is to receive encouragement from family, friends and colleagues.
He watched as Officer Matson demonstrated that determination and received consistent support. “There were always officers around Tim. He was never left alone.”
Officer Matson spent four months in the hospital, followed by 22 weeks in a wheelchair because he could not bear his weight. Groundhog weeks, instead of days, repeated themselves — Monday, Wednesday and Friday featured three one-hour sessions of physical therapy. Tuesdays and Thursdays meant occupational therapy.
Mr. Leger and his wife visited Officer Matson a few times while he was in a rehabilitation facility. Then the two men lost touch.
Last summer, while opening his mail, Mr. Leger found, “a beautiful letter” from Tim Matson and an even bigger surprise: the Medal of Valor the SWAT officer had received from the city in 2019 for his bravery in helping stop the shooting.
The biggest reason he wanted Mr. Leger to have the medal, Officer Matson wrote, “is the motivation that you gave me to push to get better. The day you walked into my room with your walker I thought, ‘Man, that’s one tough old man,’ which motivated me to push. And getting to talk to you reminded me that I took this job to be there for people like you. And for the first time in my career people like you (were here) to support me. So please accept this award for the impact the you had on my life.”
Mr. Leger said, “It floored me. I was in tears. I called him.”
During their conversation, Officer Matson, more a man of deeds than words, told Mr. Leger, “It’s yours now, buddy.”
Earlier this spring, in a moving ceremony, Mr. Leger donated the medal and letter to the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District. Eric Lidji, head of the archives, accepted them. Mr. Leger and Mr. Matson hugged.
Mr. Leger spent three months in the hospital before returning to his Squirrel Hill home. He reads newspapers every morning, studies the Jewish scriptures to honor his late friend, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, who died in the shooting, and does volunteer work.
After his much longer recovery, Officer Matson returned to work in the fall of 2019, but he had some issues. This year, between January and May, he underwent three more operations. He resumed work on the SWAT team on June 7. “I don’t want to do the same thing every day. Every day is different in police work,” he said
“The main thing for me as a police officer — we train for the worst situation and hope it doesn’t happen. We teach people at the academy about full active shooters. Hostages and victims come before us,” Officer Matson said. Dan Leger “just wanted to worship that day.”
Mr. Leger’s recovery still inspires him.
“He was able to fight through it. He fought hard. I did my job. I did what’s expected of me. Dan did that without training, without being prepared.”
When he wants to relax, Officer Matson goes fishing.
“I keep telling Dan I’m going to take him, too.”