New Zealand-born Michael Fatialofa’s inspirational story of recovery from a frightening spinal injury, writes LIAM NAPIER in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
If anyone can provide perspective on the Covid-19 crisis, it is Michael Fatialofa. Here is someone who is acutely aware how one event irreversibly changes life in an instant.
Through all the pain, the mental battles, loneliness and fear, Fatialofa’s positive progress from a freak spinal injury continues to inspire; to show what is possible with faith and inner drive to improve each day.
A powerful lesson exists in his willpower. Videos of Fatialofa’s recovery – dubbed a miracle by doctors – have uplifted the sporting world. Yet his road ahead remains long and fraught.
In this revealing interview he details the success and realities associated with his terrifying experience.
Four months ago, Fatialofa suffered a C4 vertebrae fracture and spinal contusion when 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 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.
‘We had everything planned, but then this thing happened so there’s a lot of uncertainty in the future now,’ Fatialofa says from the Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital, a specialist spinal care unit. ‘You hear about this stuff happening but you never think it will happen to you. When it did I was in total shock.’
Lying next to gunshot victims, some of whom Fatialofa heard take 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 could have a little sleep and I’d wake up and forget it had happened. I would try 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 from his Hurricanes days, and Worcester players.
Unable to move from the shoulders down, Fatialofa could not eat or talk as the surgery went through his throat, damaging his vocal cords. He was told to 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 lie 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 prevented 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 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, 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.’
Four hours of physio, occupational therapy and pool sessions each day takes its toll but these sustained efforts are paying off as he seeks to regain strength and endurance.
‘I’m making lots of progress. I’m pretty much walking unassisted now. They still don’t fully trust me on my own so outside I walk with a crutch but inside the hospital I hobble around which is pretty cool.
‘For a while it was uncertain whether I was going to be in a wheelchair for life, so I’m grateful for that.
‘I have my days when I don’t feel like doing it. Coming from a rugby background I know how to grind things out. I always turn up to my sessions and do my best even if I’m not really feeling it.’
Many obstacles remain, however.
‘You see people with spinal cord injuries but you don’t really realise how it affects internal organs.’
These include the bowel, bladder and body heat functions – damage often sustained by car-crash victims.
‘Heaps of things have been tough. I touch things and they don’t feel the same any more. There’s a reduced sensation all over. I’m been struggling with my hands and arms a bit. I’m still pretty early in my recovery and I’ve achieved a lot but there’s still so much to do. I know it’s going to be a lifetime of constant rehab. That’s where I’m at. I’m doing all this rehab and I don’t know if I’m going to get my hands back. It’s a tug of war every day in my mind but I’ve got a good support crew.’
Through the dark moments, Fatialofa’s Christian faith pushes him to further defy the odds.
While proud of the remarkable steps he’s made, there’s no overwhelming sense of achievement yet.
‘I’m quite tough on myself – I’m always striving for the next thing. When I look back a couple of weeks I can say I can do things now I was praying for. I didn’t want to be a burden on my family and have to be taken care of every day.’
As walking improves, worries about his upper body persist. A recent push-up attempt brought him down to earth.
Putting on shoes and clothes, doing menial tasks so often overlooked, take Fatialofa so much longer. Naturally, this brings frustration, having led such an active, explosive previous existence.
Staying patient is easier said than done.
‘There’s still that desire; I’m not happy with where I’m at and I want more. Being confined to a hospital for so long and now with this Covid situation I’m going a little bit crazy, but I know if I grind out this period well, in the long term it will be beneficial.’
In the immediate aftermath of the accident he was humbled as messages flooded in from European clubs and New Zealand Super Rugby teams. Attention then turned to seeking advice from others in similar positions. Now he has regained the use of his right thumb, Fatialofa is intent on returning the favour.
‘There’s a community of people with spinal injuries. They’re the only ones that really know what I’m going through. Being able to pick their brains for tips has been helpful.
‘It’s been out of my comfort zone to have a spinal injury. Now I’m trying to use what I’ve learned to help other people who are going through it. Every time I get a message I always try to reply and give them a bit of information or help.’
Reminiscing over his rugby journey that ran from Mount Albert Grammar, through Southland and Ponsonby, where he made good on a promise to All Blacks legend Sir Bryan Williams who first spotted him at a Bill McLaren tournament, and on to Auckland, the Hurricanes and Worcester, Fatialofa cherishes the camaraderie.
‘Rugby was just a bit of fun. I know I’ll miss hanging out with the boys.’
Holding a grudge against the sport would only seem natural but, once again, Fatialofa shrugs off any sense of resentment.
He is instead grateful for the support from the player bodies in England and New Zealand, and to those who continue to donate through his JustGiving page, with those funds contributing to rehabilitation costs that will long stretch on.
Once released from the spinal care unit, Fatialofa plans to use the Worcester facilities and physiotherapists before returning to his family home in Te Atatu, west Auckland, by the end of the year.
In many ways his inspiring, resilient journey that offers hope to many others has merely begun.
‘The cards have been dealt, but I’m just trying to make the best of it now.’
*This feature appeared in the latest issue of SA Rugby magazine, now on sale.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
Professional rugby players are well remunerated but what happens when the tap is suddenly turned off?
Michael Fatialofa was 27 when his accident left him seemingly bound to a wheelchair for life.
He has begun to fight back but his transition to post-rugby life occurred overnight and will now be full of personal and financial challenges.
Through his JustGiving page, Fatialofa hopes to raise funds to support his long-term rehabilitation.
He faces an uncertain future in regards to mobility, damaged function, feeling and control over his body but also with career and work prospects.
Donations will help cover immediate necessities as well as future finances, costs and unforeseen expenses.
Restart, the official charity of the Rugby Players’ Association, will be managing Fatialofa’s JustGiving campaign page.
All funds donated and raised via this fundraising page (www.justgiving.com/campaign/michaelfatialofa) will go directly to supporting Fatialofa and his family only.