Nick Webborn OBE, Chair and President of the British Paralympic Association, shares his experiences of one decision made in sport that was to change life forever, for better or worse. A journey from injury, to long-term hospitalisation and rehabilitation – and to being 'part of something bigger than yourself'.

Nick Webborn's sharing of memories forms part of our 'Replay Sporting Memories' project – and we thank Nick and everyone who has contributed.

People remember important sporting moments in history – either experiencing them personally as the sportsperson or witnessing an event and then reliving the emotions of that moment. I have loved sport all my life and recall many – watching England winning the 66 World Cup final as a 9-year-old boy, Gareth Edward’s famous try for the Barbarians in 1973, Daley Thompson’s Decathlon Gold medal and so many, many more.

However one moment, one split second, one decision made in sport was to change my life forever – for better or worse.

  

Forty years ago as a newly qualified doctor I was serving in the Royal Air Force at RAF Wattisham near Ipswich. The station at that time was home to two squadrons of F4 Phantoms on Quick Reaction Alert defending the skies against prying Russian planes. On February 18 1981, the station rugby team were playing against the University of East Anglia and I was playing my usual position of scrum-half. At a line out the ball was tapped back clumsily by one of our jumpers onto the ground towards the middle of the pitch. Do I go for it, or leave it to the forwards to clear up? Instinctively I moved quickly across to try and retrieve the ball and as I was going down I was tackled by their flanker from the tail of the line out. He hit me before reaching the ball and drove my head into the ground and my neck flexed onto my chin. I felt an almighty crack and electric shocks shot down my arms and legs.

The whistle blew and as the other players got up l was left laying flat on my back. I had the presence of mind from my medical training to say, “Don’t move me! Get the other doctor!” My colleague arrived and applied a collar and I was carefully lifted onto a stretcher and into an ambulance. At this point I could still move my fingers although a burning sensation persisted. I hoped that with a speedy and safe transfer to hospital that all might be well.

The initial x-rays in hospital showed no abnormality and I was transferred to a ward for observation. The consultant on-call had gone home with a cold and after an uncomfortable night I was reviewed the next morning. Fresh x-rays showed the spine to be dislocated at the base of the neck – the original x-rays not taken low enough – but I could still move my hands. Glad that they had found the problem I felt relieved to be going to theatre that evening to resolve the problem but I next remember waking at about 3am in an ambulance with a complete paralysis, heading to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. The operation to relocate the vertebrae had gone wrong and some years later I was to discover that the consultant had not performed this procedure before!

On arrival in Cambridge there was a mad rush to get me into the operating theatre for immediate surgery and I next awoke face down lying on something akin to an ironing board, known as a Stryker frame, looking at the floor. This device is used to turn paralysed patients over to avoid pressure sores. The other half of the striker frame is fixed on top and the then the whole thing is rotated in a frame to invert the patient.

Lying face down I saw to my great relief the face of my cousin suddenly appear underneath saying, “Hello love, I’m here”. She was a Naval nurse and had driven from Portsmouth at the first news, being the nearest family member. The rest of my family – mum, dad, the dog and my five siblings – arrived in stages. They had such kindness from local people who helped put them up in the very early days to be able to be near me for support.

After a couple of weeks I was transferred to the National Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville and my sister as a qualified nurse was allowed to accompany me on the 3-hour ambulance journey. We arrived at the much vaunted spinal unit to a shock, going from a cosy side room in a modern hospital to find an open ward in a collection of wooden huts from the original hospital that Ludwig Guttmann started in 1944. I had another shock in that I was also told that I would be flat on my back for three months. Despite the dilapidated building it was the people that made this place special – the nurses, the orderlies, the therapists. They gave comfort and humour but also a confidence that they fully understood the issues I would face in my future. The endless lifting and turning to prevent pressure sores, the bladder and bowel care, the shower routine on a trolley, feeding, drinking – one was totally dependent upon the staff for your every need.

Days passed in a monotonous regime. The nights were worst: people crying out in pain, nightmare screams, a confused older man opposite me rambled endlessly, as I lay helpless to move and longing for the light of dawn. One day, at about six weeks after the injury, I found that I could bend my thumb. With huge excitement I told the consultant that day on the ward round, who replied: “Well if you can’t extend it then it will be no use to you!” Exasperated I did not know how to respond but my father wrote “The fightback starts today" in the diary they kept for visitors to to write messages in and to sign. And it did! I started getting more movement and after a while was able to stand in water and later take faltering steps between parallel bars. It was a full eight months that I spent in Stoke Mandeville before transferring to the RAF Rehabilitation Unit at Headley Court. A wheelchair and a walking stick were to be my new companions. I never regained normal sensation to pain and temperature on my skin and the bladder and bowel issues continued but I was fighting back and returned to working in the RAF until my discharge in 1985.

That season I was injured in 1981 there were 13 players with spinal cord injuries from rugby and I remember the Daily Express taking a photo of all the people in their beds lined up. I became involved with the RFU investigating injury in rugby, as collapsing of the scrum was then a major issue and we developed several recommendations as a result to improve safety in sport.

The tale of my rehabilitation is long and tortuous but my own experience on the receiving end of treatment taught me many things. Firstly, not to stand at the end of the bed discussing the patient who is lying in the bed without engaging them! But my personal understanding of the rehabilitation process and the love of sport took me to a career in Sports Medicine. Forty years on I have been fortunate enough to work at 10 Paralympic Games, 1 Olympic Games (London 2012) and 2 Invictus Games. I have travelled the world making lifelong friends and colleagues. I took up sport again, although somewhat late, competed in wheelchair tennis for Great Britain and became national doubles champion, before my shoulder decided I should not continue that path.

I also developed an academic career, as a world-leading researcher in injury and illness prevention in Paralympic sport as a Clinical Professor in Sport and Exercise Medicine at the University of Brighton and a member of the International Paralympic Committee’s Medical Committee. However more than that I found a purpose and a passion in life that connected me back to sport. Dr Anthony Clare ('In the psychiatrist’s chair' – BBC Radio4) talks about 'The seven secrets of happiness’. The first two being: to cultivate a passion; and to be part of something bigger than yourself.

In sport and the Paralympic movement I have found both. Forty years on from that one moment in sport, the decision to fall on the ball, that split second – would I change anything? Who knows what would have happened but life goes on and one can choose to face one's challenge or not. It has not been easy with pain and immobility as part of life but that is the hand I was dealt. I recognise that one needs support – family, friends, colleagues – but it also needs an environment in which to be able to grow and thrive, which I why I am so pleased to try and help others achieve their goals through sport, now as Chair of the British Paralympic Association to meet the the vision “Through sport to inspire a better world for disabled people”.

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