Twelve months ago, during the course of her work editing a rugby magazine, my wife came across an image that brought tears to her eyes. When she showed me, it also brought tears to mine.
The photo was of a lone rugby player, dressed in the green and gold of our national team, lying on a rugby pitch. It was clear from the positioning of his body that this man was seriously injured. It just didn’t look right. Lying on his left side, the weight of his body was causing him to slump forward, yet his head hung awkwardly behind his left shoulder.
The man in the photo was me.
Just over eight years ago, in the 47th minute of the 2003 Rugby World Cup semi-final between Australia and New Zealand, as the Tighthead prop for Australia’s Wallabies, I got ready to engage in a scrum against the formidable All Blacks.
As the scrum hit, I heard a loud popping sound, and thought someone amongst the 80,000-strong crowd had let a firecracker off. Turns out that ‘firecracker’ was the noise my neck made being wrenched out of its sockets, as my head and body were pulled in opposite directions.
My 125-kilo frame just crumpled to the ground as I immediately lost all sensation below the chin–somebody later said it looked like I’d been shot. Thankfully, one of the All Black front rowers heard me yell out “Neck! Neck!” and realised there was a problem. He stood over me, protecting me from the full weight of the scrum – a combined total of between 900 and 1000 kilograms.
I recall looking at my limbs as I lay there waiting for the medics to get to arrive, thinking, “These can’t be my arms and legs. I can’t move them.” But I knew. I knew my rugby career was over and the life I’d lived up until the moment that scrum engaged, was over. I knew I was a quadriplegic.
In medical terms, I sustained a spinal cord injury at C2 to C4, basically right underneath where the spine meets the skull. Generally, the higher the level of injury to the spinal cord, the greater degree of paralysis will result. Depending on where the injury occurs, paralysis can also affect a person’s ability to breathe on his or her own as well as speech.
In Australia, roughly 400 people a year sustain a spinal cord injury – that’s basically one person each day – and approximately 50% of spinal cord injuries result in paraplegia and the other 50% result in quadriplegia. With stats like these, it’s easy to see why spinal cord injury is often seen as a hopeless cause.
It’s also a condition that doesn’t discriminate. Young, old, tall, short, male, female, spinal cord injury can bring down even the strongest of people–as my wife says, the photo of me lying there so awkwardly reminds a person of that. You don’t even have to be doing anything classed as ‘high risk’ for spinal cord injury to strike–I know of someone who tripped over a brick in the back yard, and is now in a wheelchair for the rest of their life.
Interestingly enough, specialists could never confirm exactly what happened to me, other than the location of where the spinal cord injury occurred. It’s suspected there were some sort of dislocation and perhaps some tearing of the spinal cord, and that a combination of the strength of my neck muscles and the fact the scrum stopped when it did, saved my life. I was repeatedly told it was incredible I wasn’t killed–and when I walked out of hospital five days later, I was told I’d won the lottery.
Now, all these years later, I look at that photo and just think how running onto the pitch that night, I had no idea how my life was about to change–not being able to play professional rugby again is a small price to pay for being alive, and being alive with my body in use. And not a single day goes by when I’m not thankful for that.
It’s easy to understand why then spinal cord injury research is a topic very close to my heart. It’s vital to keep pushing on for a cure for those who are, and will be, permanently affected and disabled by spinal cord injury.
We are close–a cure isn’t as out of reach as many believe it still is. And hopefully, in the not so distant future, we will get to a point where spinal cord injury experiences like mine are the norm, and not the exception.
The Spinal Cord Injury Network and The Catwalk Spinal Cord Injury Trust are joining forces on Easter Sunday, April 8, for the spinal cord injury research fundraiser, Fools & Horses Spinal Cord Injury Research Fundraiser.’ Held at Sydney’s Four Seasons Hotel, the focus of the event is glam fun, and will be hosted by Peter FitzSimons, and attended by Bondi Rescue’s Kobi Graham, and former Wallaby and current Melbourne Rebels scrum coach, Ben Darwin. Both Kobi and Ben have both experienced spinal cord injury firsthand. Entertainment includes live music, comedic debates and the auction of some extremely unique and exclusive experiences. For event bookings, please visit here or here.
This article was written by Ben, with the help of his wife Elisabeth. They met five years ago as the result of a spinal cord injury fundraiser and a dinosaur named Dorothy. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @bendarwin, and Elisabeth at @missriz.