HARRISVILLE — When Matt Nielsen’s brother Brayden left to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Matt knew it was something he also wanted to do — and he wasn’t going to let his disability stop him.
On Feb. 22, 1993, Matt was born with Down syndrome. The doctors told his parents, Dennis and MeLisa, that he had heart defects that were common in Down syndrome kids and that he would have to go through surgery when he was older.
It didn’t get easier for the boy.
When Nielsen was 4, doctors found a brain and spinal cord tumor. The tumor was shaped like a dumbbell — big in his brain, skinny through his neck, then big again down his back and spinal cord, his sister Dani Krum wrote on her blog.
The doctors determined the tumor was a fatty tumor and not cancerous. They were able to remove only about 20 percent of it, leaving him on a ventilator, fed by a gastrointestinal tube and in a wheelchair.
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“He does drink Diet Coke by the gallon,” his mom laughed. “He was on and off the vent when he first got sick, when they took the vent out for the first time his first words were ’Diet Coke.’”
Years later, Matt remains an active member of the family.
MeLisa said when Brayden and his friends were leaving on their missions, it had a big impact on Matt.
“When Brayden and that group of (his) friends all left on missions within months of one another, Matt started talking about how he was going to go on a mission.”
At first, his mother thought the possibility of Matt serving a mission would be difficult. She thought they could maybe do “something” and call it a mission — then, she found out about the young church-service missionary program and they applied.
According to LDS.org, men and women with a wide range of talents and abilities may choose to serve at a church welfare facility as a young church-service missionary, or YCSM. YCSMs serve as close to full-time as their capabilities and situations allow, and usually serve for 18-24 months, although shorter terms are possible.
Matt doesn’t see himself as having any physical or medical problems.
“I think he understands that he’s different, but I don’t think it bothers him at all,” MeLisa said. “I think he is just so happy that he never is sad about his circumstances, ever. He is sad about your circumstances if you’re sad, but he’s not sad about his.”
Now 22, Matt has been called to serve at the Harrisville Deseret Industries with his mother. They go together; he works as a greeter and she works in the women’s department.
“Matt can make you feel like you are the most important person in the world. Not just in the room, but in the world.” said his mom. “He sees people’s goodness. He sees the inside, not the outside.”
”He’s my best friend,“ his sister Dani said. ”He has brought more joy to our family than anyone else. My parents have taught us that just because Matt is different it doesn’t mean he doesn’t get to do things with us.“
“He’s been swimming, skiing — all of these things that somebody in his situation couldn’t normally do, but his parents always adapted the situation to make it work for him,” his sister said.
When Matt is not serving at the Desert Industries, he loves to follow Real Salt Lake and the Utah Jazz, playing the Xbox — and of course, Diet Coke.