Northboro man’s ‘Never give up’ spirit remembered in upcoming road race

By Susan Spencer TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF, April 1, 2015

Jim Bruce, the father of Matt Bruce, who died of ALS, holds a photo of his son while sitting in the back room of Westboro House of Pizza, a favorite restaurant of his son. PAUL CONNORS PHOTO

NORTHBORO — Matthew R. Bruce had a life that, in one relative’s words, burned so brightly, it burned too short.

“We didn’t realize the scope, the impact he had on a lot of people,” said his father, Northboro police Sgt. James R. Bruce. “He lived right up to the day he died.”

Matt died a year ago at age 26, less than a year after being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Mr. Bruce, an avid runner, and Matt’s longtime friend Jennifer M. Gauvin, 28, are honoring Matt’s memory by organizing the second annual Miles for Matt 5K road race May 9. The race begins at 9:30 a.m. at Proctor Elementary School, 26 Jefferson Road.

Proceeds of the race, which last year had roughly 800 runners and raised around $20,000, will go to Compassionate Care ALS, a nonprofit organization based in Falmouth that provides educational and legal resources, respite opportunities, guidance and support to patients and their caregivers, families, and friends.

Matt was diagnosed with ALS in April 2013 at age 25, much younger than the average age of onset, which is between 40 and 70, according to the ALS Association.

He was a licensed embalmer who was working at Mercadante Funeral Home and Chapel in Worcester, preparing for a career as a funeral director. His first symptoms were problems with speech, rather than the more typical extremity weaknesses.

“It almost sounded like he was drunk,” his father said. “He was slurring his words.”

But even right after hearing the cataclysmic news, Matt went to work. He drove his car, he spent time visiting and traveling, and he attended one of his beloved Boston Bruins hockey games just three days before he died.

There is no cure for ALS. Despite receiving top-notch care from the same team at UMass Memorial Medical Center who treated former Gov. Paul Cellucci, the disease rapidly progressed.

Mr. Cellucci died of complications from ALS in 2013.

Matt soon lost his ability to speak, a major frustration for someone who loved to talk to people, Mr. Bruce said. A feeding tube was put in.

Matt’s breathing got worse late last winter. Severe coughing, likely related to pneumonia, landed him in the hospital. Increasingly invasive efforts were made to try to inflate Matt’s lungs.

“He made it clear he did not want to be on a ventilator,” Mr. Bruce said.

The day Matt died, March 21, 2014, Mr. Bruce remembered the sun rose in the shape of a cross. There were three deer in the yard, and Matt had loved to hunt. Mr. Bruce took it as a sign.

“It wasn’t what he wanted,” Mr. Bruce said about Matt’s condition in the hospital. “We all got together and made the decision to let him go.”

At his wake, a line of mourners extended out the door for more than 7½ hours, Ms. Gauvin said.

Matt was buried at St. Luke’s cemetery in Westboro. His tombstone features a Celtic cross and a Bruins emblem.

Cam Neely, president of the Bruins, “wrote a beautiful letter to us after he passed away,” Mr. Bruce said.

Matt embraced life in the limited time he had, and those who knew him recalled the gifts of his living and dying.

“There isn’t anything in life worth worrying about,” Mr. Bruce said. “From that point on you look at everything in a whole different light. You love people more — family and friends.”

Mr. Bruce said his family, including his wife, Natalie, daughter Lauren, 22, and younger son Andrew (A.J.), 26, relied on faith, family and friends to get through the devastating loss.

A year later, Mr. Bruce reflected: “I couldn’t believe there are so many good people around that have just been a big support for us. People are really, really good. We’re blessed to have so many people in our life.”

Ms. Gauvin said that Matt’s spirit has been an inspiration. It jolted her off her medical office career path and she started working with Compassionate Care ALS as assistant events coordinator. She also became a caregiver for Dr. David E. Garber, a Falmouth dentist living with ALS.

“I’m doing what I love,” she said.

“These people are the strongest and most positive people I’ve met in my whole life,” Ms. Gauvin said. “It teaches you to live every minute to the fullest. In Matt’s words, ‘Never give up.’ “

The upcoming Miles for Matt benefit road race and the Falmouth Road Race in August will provide more opportunities for Matt’s family and friends to “Never give up,” their new mantra.

Mr. Bruce had planned to push Matt in a custom-made wheelchair adorned in Bruins colors at the Falmouth Road Race in August 2014. After Matt died in March, Mr. Bruce pushed the wheelchair with a photo of Matt in the seat.

This year at the seven-mile Falmouth race, Mr. Bruce plans to push Dr. Garber in the wheelchair, while Ms. Gauvin runs alongside as part of Team Matt.

“Live every day like it’s your last,” Ms. Gauvin said, echoing Matt’s words. “Don’t take life for granted because you never know.”

Registration and information on the Miles for Matt benefit road race can be found at www.miles-for-matt-benefit-5k-run–walk.sportssignup.com/site and on the Miles for Matt 5K Facebook page.

Contact Susan Spencer at susan.spencer@telegram.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanSpencerTG

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