‘Accepting is saying you have it – this is it. Coming to terms is day-to-day living’
Victor Connell was tired when a late scrum was called. When it hit, the hooker heard his neck pop. It was a moment that was to change his life forever
Victor Connell in his home in Co Longford. After his accident 10 years ago, the local community rallied around Victor and gave their time and money in the building of his home. “I knew almost everybody who worked on it,” he says. Photograph: Alan Betson
Victor Connell with his pet dog at home. Photograph: Alan Betson
“At the start it was like being a baby,” says Victor Connell. “Learn to pick up a glass. But you learn. I’d be pragmatic. I’d sit and look and practice it. I wouldn’t consider them as problems. I consider them challenges.” Photograph: Alan Betson
The hooker is careering through his bungalow hitting doors open with the front plates of his chair. The doors flap in and then out behind him creating great sighs of air. Orange tee-shirt, one hand on the joy stick of his wheelchair, he gazes across the road at Killoe GAA Club. This is where he has begun to reclaim lost ground.
“The bedroom,” he says. A raised bed and a hoist; a shower room to the side; an intelligent system that pulls curtains and dims lights. Spare and empty of clutter, it’s designed so he can sail through the widened halls unobstructed, free from spills and swerves.
A rugby life he once took for granted hangs on the walls. A Munster shirt with signatures. Ulster and Connacht beside them. On the sideboard, Irish rugby team bagmaster Rala’s biography, Brian O’Driscoll’s beside it. Other books with their spines showing are stacked on a table. The world closes when you are paralysed. It shrinks and narrows and on a daily basis asks you to capitulate. His landing was bad but Victor Connell has not closed the door on rugby or living.
Here he sweeps along, sometimes mindful or ambitious, frustrated or depressed, defiant and practical. “The sitting room,” he says. A giant television, a leather sofa, a bar in the corner. Yes, a bar. “Why not,” he murmurs.
No day stays the same. No one mood describes him. Always there are hurdles to leap, along with the minor triumphs of day to day. There’s a willingness in his voice. There must be. “Here’s the tilt table,” he says, swivelling around towards the exercise equipment.
Before the scrum and after the scrum. In that simple division of time, Victor has lived two lives. One as a rugby-playing 25-year-old, the other as a man adjusting and catching up, making his four-wheel world larger, more interesting, more accessible than the shrunken one it had become after he heard the pop in his neck 10 years ago.
Asked for a cigarette
When it happened he lay still on the grass and asked for a cigarette. “It wasn’t that over-wet of a day,” he says. “It was coming into the last 10 minutes. There were a lot of scrums in the game. I remember that. I jokingly said to the referee before going in, ‘would you not have less scrums’ because I was getting tired.
“We went down the first time. We both weren’t happy so we came back up. Down again. On the impact I felt my head going into the wrong position. To this day I don’t know if it was my fault. I felt a pop in my neck.
“It wasn’t painful. It was a sensation and I could hear. . . the crack. I fell on to the ground head-first and lay there. The physio and the manager came. I told them to leave me. They did. I knew there was something badly damaged.
“They took him from Mullingar to the Mater. In the Mater they tried traction to separate the ruptured spine. At 4am the next morning they were still adding weight. The C4 or C5 vertebra had popped out and they were trying to lengthen the spine to get it to pop back into place, take the pressure off the spinal cord. Then they sort of gave up, said I would have to go to surgery. They weren’t 100 per cent sure if the cord had split or not. I have an incomplete injury. The spine is still intact. There was a lot of damage done.”
In the quiet moments, it always comes back to you. Living with personal tragedy teaches you that the end point is always you. You are left to hold it. You are left to take the next step. You are the one to put order on your world. All that is left when the door closes and the care giver who has put you to bed leaves, is you. All you have when the rehab nurse turns you over sometime before dawn, is you. In those moments you can compound the damage.
So you accommodate it. You decide the size of the scar. You chose your way forward or you chose a way out. Within days of C4-C5, Victor thought about choice, the ones that were open to him. Standing upright, eye to eye. Stepping. Reaching. Walking. Washing. Going to bed. Rising. Writing. Going to the bathroom. Eating a hamburger. Handing your mate his pint. Slapping your prop on the head. They were gone. The doctors didn’t hold back.
“I woke up and couldn’t feel anything,” he says. “I was on a respirator. I felt claustrophobic with the mask. But my chest was weak. I asked the doctors the story. What’s the chance of me walking? They said ‘you’ll never move your arms or legs. You’ll never.’ That hit home fairly quick.
“I got pneumonia, got a tracheotomy. That was difficult. You are losing you bodily functions. You don’t know when you were going to the toilet. It was all hitting home.
“I got sick and couldn’t control myself, had to have suction. That was a bad night. It was the first time I was emotional. I realised I can’t control anything. My life is in other people’s hands.
“From that I said I can stay in this depression . . . I thought suicide. Would that be a way out? Would it not be a way out? I said, no. I said that’s not the way. I decided that three to four nights after the accident.”
Not many people get to decide such things. Not many lives are broken to the point of despair, where true and realistic choices involve not going on, where it may seem to be the best choice.
Outside his room in the hospital, they were queueing up to visit. That still cheers him.
Ten years on; 35 years old and his most vivid images are the soulless, empty hours on his own broken only by being turned onto his other side. They were the early days but they stay with him like a rich time of learning. Learning to see the glass as half-full.
It was a busy night in the Mater when he first arrived. It was intense and terrifying. There were people in beds either side of him when he woke. He saw first how one of them died. Then the second person on the other side died. One after the other, leaving just him alive. He didn’t know who they were but saw how it cut the families.
“That was a kick in the arse. At least I have life. I can work on it. Rehab was like a magic word. But it was the same when I got to rehab. There was always someone worse than you.
“I’ve been lucky that I had my accident playing rugby. It’s a funny thing to say. We were joking in the rehab. Seán McManus from Westmeath had an accident as a jockey. The Jockey Club and the Turf Club looked after him. The IRFU and rugby looked after me. There was a fella there that was on a trampoline. He broke his neck when he landed. The trampoline crowd weren’t going to look after him.”
GAA and rugby and family surrounded him, dug in, stepped up, waited, served, cleaned, and then built him a home, bought him a chair, a car. They slowly patched some sort of physical life together. The triple-glazed house is energy efficient and if it was more advanced in the BER rating, it would be experimental. It’s worth €450,000. Boom time €600,000.
The €80,000 timber frame was donated. Locals gave two days and anything over that they were paid for. Slates cost nothing, another gift. Longford Rugby Club, who Victor was playing for when the scrum collapsed, arrived with buckets to Ireland’s Six Nations game against Scotland in 2006. There were 120 buckets rattling and they were told to expect a €40,000 haul. They took €113,000.
It all paid for his needs. His chair operated by fingers in one hand cost €11,000. The HSE gave him one. He needs two and bought a spare from Done Deal for €2,500. The HSE will only service their chair.
An adapted car in the drive-through garage cost over €20,000 for the ‘space drive technology.’ The cost of the van was additional.
“I knew almost everybody who worked on it,” he says of the house.
His gratefulness practically exhausted, all he has to really deal with is being a quadriplegic, the loss of the motor and sensory use of his limbs and his torso. Those things will always come back to Victor, always.
In that, his life is a contradiction. Fiercely self-contained, he cannot function without assistance. From the sterile suprapubic, indwelling catheter that drains urine from his bladder through an opening in his abdomen to the craziness if it blocks, his drive now is to extend, inflate and expand his life away from the house. There, every step is a challenge.
The previously blocked catheter triggered autonomic dysreflexia, which ensured migranes, heavy sweats, goose bumps, anxiety and a promised stroke if it wasn’t fixed.
Three times a week the public nurse comes to help with his bowels. He has learned that regardless of how common that has become and how professionally it is carried out, dignity is indivisible. He sucks it up.
“At the start it was like being a baby. Learn to pick up a glass. But you learn. I’d be pragmatic. I’d sit and look and practice it. I wouldn’t consider them as problems. I consider them challenges.
“I wouldn’t put myself down. I don’t have to remind myself I’m in a wheelchair. You don’t need reminding. Life fairly kicks you back. I got a good kick in the arse when I got out of hospital first in June of 2006. I thought I was a great fella, thought I could stay up all day and all night in the chair, go out drinking.
“I got a pressure sore, ended up back in Dún Laoghaire that September. I never left the bed for five months. It was harder than the first stay in hospital because there was no physio, no occupational therapist. Just turning from side to side every five hours.
My 10-year plan
“That was tough. But I could think and plan. That’s all I could do. That’s where I came up with my 10-year plan. I gave myself 10 years to get five things done. I’m nearly there.”
He built the house, went back to college and is learning to drive. The next challenges are relationships and travel. He’s hoping to get over to the Rugby World Cup, take the boat to Wales, get to the Millennium Stadium. That would be a start.
He could easily start to miss the old Victor Connell and begin to hurt himself. A knock-about 20-year-old’s life around the GAA and rugby clubs. Barely thought-out days or weeks or months; breezy notions, believing time is always with you.
“I’d play rugby again this evening if you gave me a choice,” he says.
In the garden his dog diligently follows the whirr of the chair around the smooth track. A stone wall keeps out the herd of Friesian cows lowing in spring sun. It could easily be drawn as an idyllic setting.
The brother over there, the parents beyond that wall, the GAA club a comforting sentry at his front gate. He’s surrounded by people who won’t feel sorry for him, pat him on the shoulder or defer to his disability, all good things. But it’s not enough, not yet.
“The hardest thing is acceptance. You can’t walk. You can’t use your fingers. You can’t have sex,” he says. “I will never fully come to terms with it. I accepted it quite quickly. I knew this was the way it was going to be. They are interlinked, accepting and coming to terms. Accepting is saying you have it – this is it.
“Coming to terms is the day-to-day living. When things go bad you try not to get depressed. That’s the difference.”
There are things to do. Change the culture. Cure people’s fear of the chair and crutch. Follow stem cell research and Mark Pollock’s furious challenge to science, his dispassionate drive to regain some of what he’s lost. Travel. A relationship. Employment. Shaking new life from what’s out there.
He’s blessed, he says. Not all of the 32 Victor Connells in the IRFU Charitable Trust have his faith in the future. Not all can agree with themselves to arrive at a cold acceptance, grind and meet the challenges.
“Things are going to happen,” he says. “Stay calm. Zen like.”
His chair spins and he is gone through the broad front door, the dog behind him.
Only in life, not sport, is there triumph and disaster.