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.