THIS afternoon’s game between Scotland and Wales at Murrayfield will attract a global audience numbered in the millions and, sitting in San Diego’s Project Walk Paralysis Recovery Centre, Connor Hughes will be among them.
The young Scot will probably be wedged in a chair or his bed because he isn’t great at keeping himself upright; core stability has become core instability, which can happen when you break your neck.
Back in September, Connor was playing for Stirling University against Harris Academy FP. He intercepted a pass and pinned back his ears for the opposition line, only to be tackled.
“The tackle was safe and legal but it did bring me down,” Connor takes up the story via email from San Diego. “I still don’t know how, but in the ensuing ruck, somehow I managed to roll over my neck and all I heard was a loud crunch.
“There was a 15-20 minute wait for the ambulance to arrive. I was awkwardly positioned on the pitch, there was another player’s arm stuck under my neck and the paramedics did a good job of moving him and myself without causing any further damage.”
In many respects Connor is a lucky man. First up, he has the support of a loving mother, Fiona, and three elder, doting sisters, Sarah, Stephanie and Rachael. The latter is currently with him in California, training to be his trainer. Connor has some use of his arms but he remains hopeful of further progress and is working hard towards that goal. Sarah explains how her brother, who turned 20 this month, is fortunate in other ways.
Such was the severity of the injury that the family’s first gut reaction was “please don’t die”. Connor’s injury is to the C5/C6 vertebrae and Sarah reveals that, had it occurred a few joints higher in the spinal cord, her little brother would probably have required the help of a ventilator for the rest of his days.
A fund was set up to raise money for specialist equipment and the seven-week trip to Project Walk, the first of several Connor hopes to make to the US facility. Listening to the patient it is obvious that the money is being well spent.
“The most uplifting thing about Project Walk is their attitude,” he writes from America. “They see your body as whole still and treat it as such. They truly believe recovery is what you make it, and if you work hard you will get results.
“One day I would like to see a similar facility more accessible to patients in the UK and I will help with that in any way that I can.
“I am progressing well. With my level of injury I have zero core and trunk stability, so one of the main focuses for now is to try and re-engage my abdominal muscle and back extensors. They have me doing a lot of balance work, as well as this we are doing daily weight bearing and electrical stimulation, all to help with keeping muscle tension and re-training the nervous system.
“I know there may be a few expecting me to come back walking but seven weeks of rehab is a very short window for spinal injury recovery. I was talking to one of the specialists the other day at Project Walk and they explained that it can take 18 months for the swelling, shock and trauma from a spinal injury to even begin to reduce. But I couldn’t think of a better place to begin my recovery, and I am learning a huge amount in these seven weeks.”
Connor has been overwhelmed by the support he has received from the wider rugby community and, amongst other events, a fund-raising dinner has been arranged on 9 May at Stirling County’s Bridgehaugh clubhouse to help swell the coffers. Moreover, he insists that his injury was one of those things that occasionally happen in sport.
“What happened was an accident,” he says. “Most cases of spinal cord injury happen in a fall or a car crash but you can’t stop people falling or driving a car, it can happen in any situation in life! I would still recommend rugby to anyone.”
His big sister reveals that not once has Connor ever asked the question... why me? There appears to be a complete lack of self pity, just a steely determination to make the most of the situation.
When Wales played Scotland in 2010 at Cardiff, Thom Evans was almost placed in a similar situation to the one Connor finds himself. So when this afternoon’s match is over, regardless of the result, offer up a silent prayer of thanks that, with a little luck, bumps and bruises are the worst damage anyone will have sustained.
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