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Rugby community rally behind Mutrie

Canada's Meghan Mutrie gives us an insight into the amazing support she has received from the rugby community since a life threatening injury. 

In 2007 Meghan Mutrie was playing for Canada at the Nations Cup in London, when she collided heads with an opposing player and was knocked unconscious for 10 minutes and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The injury affected Mutrie's speech, motor skills and memory, but she has incredibly made an almost full recovery. Now working with the Canada Rugby Union helping to promote women’s rugby, she talks about the amazing support she has received from the rugby community since her injury.

By Meghan Mutrie
(Written and published in 2009 with some revisions in 2013)

"I have a theory that bad things don’t happen to bad people. My theory was unscientifically strengthened recently in Edmonton after I met a rugby player who fractured his neck in a game three weeks prior. I was blown away by his positive yet realistic attitude and his amazing personality.

Steve Ferrero broke his c3 vertebrae and, had it shifted forward instead of backwards, he would have been paralyzed for life. Instead, he walked out of the hospital after spinal surgery with three titanium rods in his neck and faces a long road to recovery. Crazy to think this was the preferable outcome. Steve now wears a neck collar and is still in a considerable amount of pain, but he is extremely proud and doesn’t let it dampen his brave spirit or his position on rugby. Steve is an exceptional person and listening to him talk about how much he still loves the game of rugby and the people involved really struck a chord with me.

Steve and I have both been the beneficiaries of the rugby family’s unconditional love after critical injuries. There is a gentler side to rugby, as it can at times appear to be a masochistic and barbaric contest to outsiders who don't understand the nuances of the game.

Even this is a product of the sport's unwritten code of values; don't tell your left hand what your right hand did.

I don't want to gloss over or dilute the tragedy of critical injuries. Catastrophic injuries as a result of sport aren’t common but they are very real, often complex, and usually have an equally devastating and lasting effect on the athlete’s inner circle of family and friends long after the actual incident. However, it would be wrong to color rugby an entirely bleak shade as these incidents are not indicative of the sport's nature at all. I have worldwide, firsthand proof.

After graduating university in the US, I used rugby as my passport to travel the world alone. I lived, played and learned rugby in England and New Zealand for a year. I have played rugby in over nine countries against 20 different countries and at the end of a few senior national tours, managed to surreptitiously tag on trips to England, Germany, Dubai and Hong Kong.

Rugby is a global secret handshake. I would show up at a foreign club with my boots as a total stranger, but after two hours on the pitch and a few in the clubhouse I would walk away with 30 friends. When I travelled to Fiji, I typically managed to forget my wallet in Auckland. I was alone with no money in a foreign country for 10 days but rugby afforded me privileges normally not accessible to a tourist.

After one game of barefoot touch, the tiny village of Waya Lailai in the Yasawa Islands adopted me for the week. I accompanied the chief (a former Super Rugby player) to an annual kava ceremony previously never attended by a woman or foreigner, played in the weekly tri-village game with 18-year-old men (full tackle!) and huddled on a grass mat in a thatch hut crowded with 20 men at 4 am to watch the Super14 finals live on the island's lone TV.

Sport crosses political boundaries around the world and rugby is no exception, although it elevates above other sports when it comes to the quality of people involved. I want to use the word brotherhood, but rugby bridges the gender gap as well. This sense of family is evident in fair-weather, but it shines when a storm threatens one of its family members.

Amazing people.

After my travelling stint to NZ in 2007, I fell in love with every aspect of the country and used any excuse to go back. I returned to attend journalism graduate school in Wellington at Massey University and played club and NPC rugby in 2008. I could not have asked for a better life experience, but it was a great rugby experience especially. I played for Johnsonville RFC and was one of four Caucasians (or palagi or pakeha, as they would affectionately call me). One of my coaches was a rugby TV commentator and local league legend and the other is a current All Black. The girls were amazing people. Our training sessions were nonchalantly graced with the likes of Andrew Hore, Jason Eaton, Alama Ieremia and Jamie Joseph.

In a club game in May 2008, I was tackled out-of-bounds and landed on a sideline flag, fracturing three bones in my back. I was 24, but there is something about being alone in a hospital that turns you into a helpless child and makes you want your family.

It wasn't long before I was joined by my NZ family. My Johnsonville teammates and coaches shushed the receptionist and claimed to be my family (clearly a couple of skin shades of a lie) with KFC and lollies for a picnic on my hospital bed. When I left the hospital, I was scooped up by a Samoan family – MY Samoan aiga - the Ah-Hi’s, and taken in like one of their own until I could take care of myself. I am without words for the gratitude I have for my NZ surrogate family, including Ken Laban, Karl Vasau and Trudy Matulino.

Three months after a remarkable recovery and palpable example of rugby fellowship, life reiterated its lesson because clearly I hadn’t learned mine. In August, with a month left of my journalism course, I flew from NZ to England to join my Canadian team for the 2008 Nations Cup and in a game against England I was knocked unconscious for 10 minutes from a tackle. I was taken off the field on a stretcher and to a hospital by ambulance. An MRI revealed the right side of my brain was bleeding, similar to that of a stroke patient; I had a traumatic brain injury.

My Canadian team was due to fly home the next morning but I was still in the hospital in London, unable to fly for three weeks because of the bleeding. I don’t remember any of this but Geraint John, Rugby Canada's High Performance Director and a friend, stayed with me until rugby picked up the Bat-Phone.

Again I found myself alone in a foreign country, but not alone at all. When I lived in England, I had played for Richmond RFC.

A few of my former teammates immediately dropped their lives to take care of me, including giving me a place to stay, grocery shopping for me, spending time with me and taking me to my favourite London breakfast diner, Greedies. Two of my Canadian teammates who live in London, Sarah Ulmer and Leslie Cripps, made sure I was receiving the best medical care and provided amazing personal support. The RFU showed their concern and put me up in their flat and helped my mom, who had never been to London before but had flown from Canada because I was unable to function on my own.

Messages of inspiration.

There were a lot of dark and confusing days when I returned to Canada, but it was my rugby teammates from across Canada who had filled my inbox and mailbox with messages of concern and inspiration. And much needed humour.

For the first few months, I was unable to talk without slurring, I drooled, and couldn't get dressed or close my eyes without falling over. I couldn't remember how to have a conversation or what I was doing 15 minutes prior. By the time I got to the end of a sentence, I’d have forgotten I was even talking and just trail off. I would put the kettle on and then be surprised when it boiled. I looked at photos and watched old videos to see how I used to move, talk and interact; when I did speak, I had zero affect. I lay in my bed in the dark for months, letting my brain heal. Someone should have confiscated my laptop; I had no business communicating with the outside world but because I was sending emails and updating my Facebook status, I was assumed to be “okay”.

There were definitely sinister days where I wondered if I would ever get better and it was always on those days when someone from the rugby community would call, visit or email and let me know they were thinking of me.

This brain injury was so much bigger than just returning to a sport; it was about being a functional person in everyday life again.

The doctors were smart: even though I can never play again (chance of death if I take another head knock), they never phrased it like that so I didn’t take it as a challenge. They just gave me enough information and let me slowly figure it out on my own. I eventually got there, and I’m sure medical professionals would have intervened had I not, but I shudder when I think of other athletes with head injuries who are rushed back into sport with the onus to do so put on their shoulders.

Athletes, especially successful ones, have gotten to where they are because of their ability to push their bodies harder, longer and further than others; pain isn’t so much a threshold as it is an old friend. A thesaurus lists adjectives of ‘injured’ as ‘broken’, ‘disabled’ and ‘damaged’. None of these sit well with a proud, driven and normally antonymic athlete.  

But add outside pressures to the personal mental turbulence of being out of action and deciding when to come back – their livelihood, coaches, sponsors, the public and ego (it helped get them here but sometimes big enough that it warrants mention as a third party. That’s not a knock). This choice is a beast on its own, but imagine fighting it in the dark.

Choosing to push your body through an injury to play is one thing, but it’s an impaired decision when that injured body part is what you’re making your decision with. It’s why people drink and drive – of course it’s a good idea at the time! You only had a few; it’s only a 10-minute drive home, etc.

Deciding if I was I ever going to play again was ridiculously high on my priorities list but I couldn’t see the bigger picture through the fog of the brain injury. Worry about finishing a sentence first or walking down a hallway without falling over, Mutrie! I was very lucky that I was able to lay low with my family long enough for some of the haze to clear. A lot of other athletes - professional ones, too - don’t have the same luxuries that I did in that regard.

Everyone and their dog had advice for me, but it wasn't until my Canadian Sevens team invited me to Dubai as a spectator that I actually asked for advice and genuinely considered it. I immediately wrote down what my teammates said so I wouldn’t forget because of my mental state. My teammates were amazingly candid and it meant a lot to me they were so free with their words. I respected theirs and other athletes’ advice because they could empathize with what it meant to play sport.

All of them said it wasn't worth it.

The tipping point of my decision, and a big reason to why I am so at ease with never playing contact sports again, was an email I received from my Johnsonville coach, All Black scrumhalf Piri Weepu. He is a typical staunch Kiwi who is often casual and flippant in his demeanor, and normally we have a sarcastic relationship.

I saved the email he sent me urging me not to play again with so much at stake. He said he had to watch his brother go through the same thing and it scared him enough for him to warn me. Great advice from a friend, but they were weighted words; an All Black was telling me the game wasn’t worth risking my health.

“…so please i know its hard but don't push it to hard please. your a great rugby player and go hard in rugby but theres more to be around for then lying in a bed helpless. so please take it easy.” (sic)

I'm embarrassed that I was so honestly confused about the decision because it is so clear now that my playing days were over but it was my rugby friends who helped me and my brain slowly come to terms with the sidelines. I did get there eventually; the hazy stupor slowly cleared, and with it, a shift in my perspective and my priorities followed. I went from a Type A, single-minded, high-achieving international athlete to a humbled, grateful, much more considerate and happily functioning member of society.

My heart has swelled to the size of the Grinch’s post-Christmas heart; I was starting to feel guilty as the recipient of so much selflessness and support. Right when I thought I couldn’t possibly fit any more kindness in my life, my former national coaches, Johnathan Long and Kris de Scossa, secretly arranged my capping ceremony and I was capped in May 2009 in front of Canada’s National Senior Women’s Team, some of the same girls who were on the field with me for my final game.

I have been moved to the point of tears numerous times through my ongoing recovery because of the love and support of my friends, but especially from my rugby family. I have firsthand experience of their benevolence, and the community does it without obligation or an agenda. But I've also been witness to the panicked scramble of a crisis situation and the fear of blame.

Insurance and logistics.

In the event of a catastrophic injury, it would be wonderful if there were a fund set aside to help cover incidental costs, a sensitive on-call case manager available to help the family take care of insurance and logistics, and the support networks already in place to aid the athlete physically and emotionally. Ideally, all of this would be ready just in case beforehand so the athlete’s family and rugby community could wholly direct their attention to the injured, if/when another tragedy strikes. As I mentioned at the start, rarely are catastrophic injuries solely about the athlete. Family and friends are the ones given the same life sentence.

It doesn't need to be scary or uncomfortable but critical injuries in any contact sport are a possibility. Playing rugby without a contingency plan in place is a lot like walking a tightrope without a safety net and putting the entire obligation on your friends to catch you if you fall.

There are a million and one clichés about how tough times reveal actual character, but there are so many because it is true. In the face of adversity, rugby stands up and takes it on the chin so that its parishioners can quietly go about helping the fallen back to their feet.

The IRB allocates which tier each nation competes at but that doesn't mean the lower tiers subscribe to a second-rate set of rugby values. It doesn’t matter what level you play at – or used to play at - in whatever country. The humanity of the rugby way of life is the same around the world; it is camaraderie and compassion not isolated to an exclusive country, but to our sport. I have worldwide, firsthand proof.