View the amazing short film produced by Flux Magazine about Matt:
When I speak with KMC Long term care resident Matthew Kaopio I almost forget he is a C4 quadriplegic, paralyzed from the shoulders down. His physical disability has not diminished his spirit. In fact, he remains inspired and has achieved goals many would aspire to.
Matt jokes with me in easy conversation while he zips about via a motorized wheelchair controlled by limited movement in his left arm. He is a resilient and shining light that is hard to miss. Despite the many challenges that come with being a quadriplegic, Matt has continued throughout his journey to develop and pursue his interests which include a deep study of Hawaiian culture, writing, and painting. Since his arrival to KMC’s Long-term Care unit in December 2016, Matt’s been inspired to paint scenes of Ko‘olauloa and the North Shore, the favorite and familiar places of his new home. His paintings show texture and vibrant color, BUT, unlike most artists, Matt paints using a brush held and controlled solely by his mouth.
Matt was born in Waimanalo, grew up on Kaua‘i, and attended Kamehameha Schools. Twenty-three years ago, when he was a senior at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, he survived a swimming accident at Waipahe‘e Falls on Kaua‘i. In an instant, his life changed, as this spinal injury rendered him paralyzed from the shoulders down. As a young man, Matt was forced to do deep searching alongside rigorous physical therapy. He was taught to paint with his mouth at the Rehab Hospital of the Pacific in Honolulu, learning from artist and teacher Gordon Sasaki. Matt was inspired at the time by mouth painter David Kaaihue, who coincidentally is also a fellow resident in the KMC long term care unit! (KMC also did a story on David, you can read it HERE. Matt says playfully “David is the pro artist. I’m the con artist!” How lucky is KMC to have two accomplished artists in its midst? Both David and Matt have been accepted into the Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists, a prestigious international organization.
Years of his paralysis, Matt was re-learning how to survive daily living, but he was also being called back to school. He not only completed his Bachelor of Arts in Hawaiian and Pacific Studies, he also received his Master of Arts in Pacific Island Studies from UH Manoa. He utilized dictation software which allowed him to complete his papers. His deep love of Hawai‘i — places, people, the living culture — continue to inspire his painting and writing. Matt is indeed a published author as well. Since 2003, he’s written four books — two tell family legends alongside his mouth-brush paintings, and two are fictional accounts about a young, homeless Hawaiian boy.
In the early 2000s, Matt was fortunate that his brother stepped up to be his main caregiver. Together, they lived on Matt’s homestead land in Wai‘anae. Sometime later, in recognizing his need for more skilled care, Matt moved into a care home in Makaha for a year, then moved to a care home in Waimea town on Kaua‘i for two years, to be near his dad. A pressure sore and the need for IV antibiotics brought Matt back to Oahu and to KMC for skilled nursing care. When he learned that a room opened up for possible permanent residency, the decision to stay was easy. “KMC is a small facility and I love the caring and loving ohana here. This is a small town, I’m so at home. And the food..is really really good!”
The time that I spend with Matt is filled with hellos from other nurses and KMC staff who so appreciate Matt’s energy, positivity, sense of humor and kindness. “He’s brought so much life to the day room!” says Selina Mariano, KMC’s recreational therapy aide, who often assists Matt with the set up of his paints and art station.