In a snippet from the latest SA Rugby magazine, Michael Fatialofa opens up about his miraculous recovery from a frightening spinal injury that threatened to leave him paralysed.
Four months ago, the New Zealand-born forward suffered a C4 vertebrae fracture and spinal contusion during a routine collision while carrying the ball into contact, one minute after coming on to the field in an English Premiership match between Worcester and Saracens.
The 27-year-old, a Vodacom Super Rugby title-winning lock with the Hurricanes in 2016, spent four weeks in London’s St Mary’s Hospital – three in intensive care.
Having signed with a Top 14 club for the 2021-22 season, Fatialofa went from scheduling French lessons with newly-wedded wife Tatiana to being told he was likely to be wheelchair-bound for life – such was the extreme nature of his injuries.
‘I had just signed to play in France for the next few years. We thought we had everything planned but then this thing happened so there’s a lot of uncertainty in the future now,’ Fatialofa recounted from Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital, a specialist spinal-care unit.
‘You hear about this stuff happening, but you never think it will happen to you. When I did, I was in total shock.’
Lying next to gun-shot victims, some of whom Fatialofa heard taking their last breaths, there were days in intensive care where he had to relive the reality of his injury all over again.
‘I had really bad neuropathic pain and they would give me all these drugs so I would have a little sleep and I’d wake up and forget it had happened.
‘I would go to move and I would start panicking. It’s taken some adjustment knowing that life is going to be different now.’
While in intensive care, Tatiana stayed by Fatialofa’s side. He enjoyed frequent visits from other family, friends and former teammates – Sam Lousi, Loni Uhila, Victor Vito, Matt Proctor, Willis Halaholo and Worcester players among them.
Initially unable to move from the shoulders down, Fatialofa could not eat or talk as the invasive surgery went through his throat, damaging his vocal cords. He was told to eventually prepare for a raspy Darren Lockyer-like voice.
‘The boys would come through and I couldn’t say anything. I was in pain, so I would just lay there. They came around me and talked to each other, so it was comforting hearing their voices.’
Essential nutrients were funnelled through a nasal tube which led to a buildup that created a nasty stench.
‘I still get whiffs of that smell and it puts me off.’
Post-surgery Fatialofa dropped 12 kilograms – falling from 120 to 108kg. At that stage, he had to be hoisted everywhere.
‘I couldn’t do anything for myself. I had an itch on my face and I’d want to scratch it but I couldn’t. I had to have a one-on-one nurse for that month.
‘Your pride takes a hit because you can’t do anything. Every little thing someone else has to do for you. You have to learn to let go and realise how it had to be. That was bloody tough.’
Daily visitors surrounding Fatialofa’s bedside have since faded to memories.
The Covid-19 pandemic has even ceased close contact with Tatiana, leaving Fatialofa to plough on with exhaustive rehab largely alone.
‘Seeing everyone made it a lot easier but now I have to do it by myself. It gets tough some days with that uncertainty. With this type of injury, you don’t know what the end result is.’
A gaggle of 60-year-old men, many of whom are stroke patients, offer light relief outside podcasts and music escapes.
‘The crowd here is older. They all want to hear rugby stories and they share life lessons. There’s some pretty funny yarns. Some of them have led some pretty cool lives.’
The inspiring part of Fatialofa’s recovery is his ability to walk again so soon – yet even that process requires the strength to rise from regular falls.
The big toe on his left foot remains paralysed, which can lead to it dragging by the end of the day, and the hip flexor on the same side causes issues too.
Balance and mobility have, however, improved more than many medical professionals predicted it ever would.
‘It’s getting better but a couple of weeks ago a little gust of wind would have sent me over.’
*The full interview with Fatialofa features in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.
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