x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Injured rugby veteran struggles to get back on his feet

The rugby community rushes to the aid of 62-year-old Trevor Stott-Briggs after he suffers a serious spinal cord injury on the pitch.

A view of the scar on the back of Trevor Stott-Briggs' neck following surgery.
A view of the scar on the back of Trevor Stott-Briggs' neck following surgery.

Sometimes you are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. For Trevor Stott-Briggs, an English expatriate who has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past four and a half years, the wrong place was Sharjah and the wrong time was the late afternoon of February 25.

Early on that spring morning, TSB as he is affectionately known - and at 62 years of age, one of the oldest rugby union players in the UAE - had pulled on the pink shirt of the Arabian Potbellies to represent the side in a tournament.

The Potbellies team was made up of "veteran" players (those who are over 35) and while the side's ethos emphasises enjoyment as much as it does sporting endeavour, the team wasn't in Sharjah just to make up the numbers.

Far from it. The team had turned up to stand toe-to-toe with the best and TSB - who is also a qualified referee and an active member of Abu Dhabi Harlequins, where three of his sons play for the club - was an integral part of that effort.

"We had played a couple of games in the morning," he remembers, "and then we had one remaining match in the afternoon. I was on and off the pitch. In fact, I had been substituted, but in the last minute I got called back into service for one final scrum."

The game, against Sharjah Vets, had been all but lost by the time he crossed the white line. This should have been just one last shove in the sun before the referee blew for time.

"I went back on and I think everyone was tired. The scrum started to disintegrate like this," he screws his hands together and twists his fingers as he recalls the instant in which the course of his life changed forever, "and I got left in the middle with three guys from Sharjah pushing hard and downwards on my neck."

All that pressure, all that force, all that weight bearing down on him, had terrible repercussions.

"It felt like I was being spun very slowly in the air. Then I hit the ground. I didn't pass out, I remember the medics came on to the pitch and asked me if I could feel my hands. Thankfully I could, but it felt like my arms [and legs] were burning from the inside out - but more importantly I could not feel my legs at all."

TSB was rushed to a Sharjah hospital where a CT scan revealed a serious injury to his spinal cord. It was a contusion, a trauma that manifests itself with swelling around the nerves and a sweeping loss of feeling which may end up causing permanent disability.

There were times in the earliest days after he sustained his injury that "they weren't sure if I would regain feeling in my legs. This was a huge worry. I have to say that I wasn't keen on losing the use of my limbs," he says with a liberal dose of understatement.

He tells me all of this from his room in the telemetry unit on the first-floor of Abu Dhabi's Al Noor hospital which, by a quirk of cruel geography, lies just a long drop kick away from the Zayed Sports City complex where the capital's main rugby club, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, is based.

He spent the last days of February in Sharjah, before being returned to Abu Dhabi at the beginning of the following month. He then took up residence in the Al Noor hospital until mid-May, when he transferred to the Rochester Wellness Rehabilitation Clinic in Dubai to begin in earnest his stuttering journey on the long, long road to recovery.

He returned to the capital for a brief period last week for an operation, when he underwent a procedure to insert a titanium plate to straighten and pin five of his displaced cervical vertebrae. He is now back at the Rochester once more.

Earlier this week he was able to stand up for the first time since his accident, an occasion captured, by happy coincidence, during TSB's photocall for these pages. Such baby steps represent a giant leap for a man who wondered if he would ever truly get back on his feet.

Now he is determined to be much more active by the end of the year. "I want to be mobile in some sense, maybe on crutches, maybe on a walking frame [before the end of December]. That should be achievable. I am in the Rochester, not to stay there, but to get out of there." He plans to take his family to the United States at the end of December to visit his sister and her family in North Carolina. It would be a fitting end to a traumatic year.

If only this was the only demon he was battling. Instead, TSB has also been wrestling with mounting hospital bills. He remains coy about the full cost of his rehabilitation, except to say that "there are significant expenses that you can't claim on your medical insurance, but we are hoping for a fair reimbursement."

Nevertheless, his status as a respected figure on the UAE and Asian sporting scene - he formerly played for Manila Nomads and was the executive director of the Philippine Rugby Union - galvanised the rugby community at large to help TSB and his family. He is married to Agnes, his Filipina wife. They have four children.

Harlequins organised a mini-rugby event at Zayed Sports City in April at which all proceeds went to support TSB's care costs, and most clubs in the Emirates have run similar fundraising efforts before and since. So too have others much further afield. He has a map of the world taped to the wall of his room in the Rochester, into which he sticks pins to mark locations where rugby clubs have dug deep to help pay his bills. More, of course, will need to be done in the months ahead.

Despite all this, he remains remarkably calm about how he has arrived at this crisis.

"I don't have any regrets about playing, although I might think sometimes 'what if' I hadn't gone back on that pitch. But I did," he says. "And people get injured. I've run that through my head, often in the middle of the night, and I've asked myself should I be angry? But I don't see the point in that. Something like this could happen to any of us.

"You go out on the field and you play as hard as you can - within the laws of the game - and then you come off and you and your opponents are the best of friends. And that is what rugby is all about.

"The way that everyone has responded since my accident tells me that rugby is a fantastic game. There isn't another sport in the world where there is such aggression on the field and such compassion, camaraderie when you come off it. I would never have thought that so many people could have been so willing to help me. I almost have tears in my eyes just thinking about that."

That camaraderie and that compassion now extends to a plan to set up the TSB Charitable Trust, independently administered and audited by members of various rugby organisations here in the UAE, to receive all those donations that have flowed in from around the world.

Once he is more mobile, TSB would also like to keep the trust open to help other rugby players who pick up injuries on the pitch. Even in his own hour of need he is concerned that he should "give something back" to all those who have so generously helped him.

He has other plans too. he has begun to write his memoir, a collection of his favourite rugby stories from around the world (since leaving the UK in 1976, he has lived and played the game in Africa, Asia and the Gulf) juxtaposed with anecdotes from his long period of convalescence. Some of the royalties from this will go back to the trust.

He has also been able to check and respond to the correspondence that arrives in his work email account every day. He continues to be employed as a business development manager for Orascom Construction Industries. "I want to do all these things", he says, "and my doctors, physiotherapists and occupational therapists are encouraging me to do them."

He wants to do these things even though his injuries sometimes throw up huge complications. A few nights ago his body was overtaken by overwhelming pain, like an "electric current" cracking through his bones, an unwelcome side effect following his operation earlier in the week. His lungs partially collapsed and he was in so much discomfort he thought his time was running out. He survived, but the incident serves as a reminder that he has much ground still to cover.

Nevertheless, with the new rugby season just days away from kicking off, he remains largely upbeat, determined to win the toughest match of his life.

"I'll be there. I won't be playing, my wife would kill me if I do," he jokes, "but I'll soon be back involved in rugby in one way or another."