'That was bloody tough': Inside Michael Fatialofa's miracle recovery journey
Everyone is now acutely aware how one event irreversibly changes life in an instant. Expand that same feeling out to a lifetime of change, and only then can you begin to grasp Michael Fatialofa’s daily struggles.
Through all the pain, the constant mental battles, loneliness and fear, Fatialofa’s positive progress from a freak rugby spinal injury continues to inspire; to show what is possible with faith and inner drive to improve each day. He is proof that resilience alone can help overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Some 133 days into his fight to regain the use of his limbs, a powerful lesson exists in Fatialofa’s willpower for us all.
Viral videos of Fatialofa’s recovery – dubbed a miracle by doctors – have uplifted the world during coronavirus-induced lockdowns. Just this week he walked two kilometres – an impossible notion a matter of months ago.
Yet his road ahead remains long, and fraught.
In this revealing interview, Fatialofa details the successes and stark realities attached to his terrifying injury.
Four months ago, Fatialofa suffered a C4 vertebrae fracture and spinal contusion during a routine collision while carrying the ball into contact, one minute after coming onto the field in an English Premiership match between Worcester and Saracens.
The 27-year-old, 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 following 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 is 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 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 happened 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 relived his plight 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.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 17, 2020
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 build-up that created a nasty stench.
“I still get whiffs of that smell and it puts me off.”
Post-surgery Fatialofa lost 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 push 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 50-to-60-year-old men, many of whom 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 funny yarns. Some of them have led 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 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 repeat, sustained efforts are, clearly, paying off as he seeks to gradually 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 I walk with one crutch outside but in the hospital I’m hobbling around which is pretty cool.
“It was uncertain there for a while if I was going to be in a wheelchair for life so I’m grateful for that.
“I have my days where 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 don’t really realise until you’re in it how it affects your internal organs.”
These include the bowel, bladder and body heat functions – damage often sustained by severe car crash victims.
“Heaps of stuff like that has been tough. My sensation, I touch things and it doesn’t feel the same anymore. 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 go. I know it’s going to be a lifetime thing 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.”
Rugby is slowly getting back to some form of normality in NZ. https://t.co/NklVhEMix5
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 17, 2020
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 is 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 with a recent push up attempt bringing him down to earth.
From putting on shoes to clothes, menial tasks so often overlooked take Fatialofa so much longer to achieve. Naturally this process evokes frustration having led such an active, explosive previous existence. Staying patient is easier said than done.
“There’s still that desire in me that 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 in here but I know if I grind out this initial period well then in the long term it will be beneficial.”
Fatialofa’s world shifted overnight from the rugby to the spinal community.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident 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 really helpful.
“It’s been out of my comfort zone to have a spinal injury that was well known but now it’s happened I’ve been trying to use what I’ve learnt to help other people that are going through it.
“Every time I see a message I always try and reply and give them a bit of information or help.”
Reminiscing over his rugby journey that started as a Waitemata junior before progressing to Mount Albert Grammar, Southland, Ponsonby, where he made good on a promise to All Blacks legend Sir Bryan Williams who first spotted him at a Bill McLaren tournament, through to Auckland, the Hurricanes and Worcester, Fatialofa cherishes the camaraderie above all else.
“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 Fatialofa shrugs off any sense of resentment. He is instead grateful for the support from the respective player bodies in England and New Zealand, and to those who continue to donate through his JustGiving page, with those funds contributing to rehab 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 has merely begun.
“The cards have been dealt, but I’m just trying to make the best of it now.”
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