With a determined stare chiseled on his face, Matt Carrier methodically made his way down the hallway, intently focused on the once-simple act of picking up one foot and putting it in front of the other.

Nobody told him it would be easy. Then again, the long way back never is.

But these days Matt is a man with plenty to prove—to his family, to his caregivers and, especially, to himself. That’s the thing about having strokes like he did on Jan. 6, 2015, leaving him partially paralyzed, unable to walk and barely able to speak. The road to recovery is a long, winding one, filled with frustrations and small, incremental victories.

Then there are days like today.

Today Matt has come to Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital to prove that the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step—and the smallest of steps can prove the biggest of accomplishments. The 37-year-old mail carrier from Fremont, Michigan, returned to the hospital’s Center for Acute Rehabilitation to visit the team that took care of him in the days and weeks following two strokes—and to show them that he isn’t done fighting.

“I have a lot of emotions, I almost cried,” Matt said, sitting in the center’s sunlit conference room as the staff clamored to see him outside. “It was surreal. I told myself I had to walk in here without a walker, so I could show them the improvement.”

Mission accomplished.

“When we left here we had a follow-up appointment six weeks after we left (at Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial Hospital), and his goal at that time was to walk with a walker at his next appointment, which he did,” explained Matt’s wife, Brandy Carrier. “And then his goal after that was to walk in here today without a walker, which he did.”

Matt’s return was to the amazement of the gathered rehab team, including speech therapist Stephanie Peper, and clinical lead Laurel Packard, who said seeing him walk down the hallway was beyond belief.

“I thought, ‘It’s only been six months, that’s amazing,'” she said. “I think that Matt has had a tremendous recovery. …I think that his recovery was the most amazing because he had such drive to get back to his family. I think it was amazing to see his family come together as a unit and really respond. They just wanted to give him that independence, to be a husband and father, and return to their lives together, and I think that was beautiful.

“And, now, to see him walking without a device is amazing. It’s a miracle.”

‘I have to show them I can do anything’

But as Matt has proven, miracles take work.

With his occupational and physical therapy now over, he begins the process of improving on his own during home therapy. To aid in his recovery, his parents, Bert and Theresa Carrier, moved in with Matt and Brandy to help care for Matt and the couple’s two sons, Lukas, 7, and Dominic, 7 months, while Brandy works as a site manager at Gerber Memorial Hospital.

He’s getting there, one small step at a time. Where he couldn’t even turn himself in his seat a few short months ago, Matt is walking, talking and fighting for a return to normalcy. He can eat on his own, send text messages and even checks Facebook.

While this experience has made him stronger, he said it’s also made his family so much stronger along the way.

“(It’s brought us) a lot closer,” he said. “It showed me a lot of things I’ve overlooked. Like, for instance, the bond between my parents and me. They’ve really taken care of me. And my boys, I have to get back to take care of them.”

And while his small steps are indeed giant leaps in his recovery, Matt knows his journey isn’t over.

“Get back to work. My next goal is to get back to work,” Matt said. “I have to show everybody that I can do it, and to take care of my family. We have a lot of work to do, it’s a slow process, but it’ll get better. I have to get better for my two boys. I have them to take care of. I have to show them I can do anything.”

“Show them that no matter what life gives you, they can overcome it, right?” Brandy added.

“That’s right,” Matt said.

But as Matt has learned, his story and struggle is inspirational far beyond his own family.

“(Not) until recently, (when) the King and Queen of the Netherlands came and were asking about me,” Matt said. “I thought to myself, ‘I can be a role model for everybody.’ I do hope so. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but I’m going to walk again.”

The road ahead

Matt’s recovery goals are to one day return to work, yes, but also the smaller victories of performing day-to-day tasks, everything from feeding and bathing himself, to household chores such as folding clothes and baking cookies.

His parents are returning to their home in September, giving Matt another milestone to work toward.

Out in the rehab unit hallway, surrounded by the team that encouraged his recovery, Matt clearly had his share of believers. Standing under a big, bright poster with the reminder “Outcomes” written across it, it’s clear Matt is the poster boy not just for the Center for Acute Rehab, but for perseverance, too.

“All too often, we think of outcomes as numbers,” Laurel said. “‘He achieved this level, on this scale.’ But really, our outcome is to see this man, who once could not stand on his own, could not speak, could not do for himself, to see him stand under his own power, without a device … that is an outcome. That’s the outcome that matter most to us. That’s the reason why we do what we do here.”

And it’s the people of the rehab unit who have brought Matt and Brandy back today, to share his successes with them.

“She means a lot to me–the whole world to me,” Matt said of Laurel. “Her and her team. They’re like a family to me.”

“I truly feel that the care we were given here was so exceptional,” Brandy added. “They cared about Matt, and they cared about the family, and incorporated the family into the care we received. I truly feel that they cared as much about his success as he did, and when he was down, they understood that, but they also tried to pick him back up. It wasn’t just … I never felt that it was just a job for them.”

Today, Matt has a job of his own to do, and if this experience has taught him anything, it’s that anything is possible.

“I’m still learning,” he said. “I’m still thinking that I can do this. I have the strength, I believe in myself. It’s teaching me I can do this.”