Let’s help Paul in his greatest battle
PAUL ACKFORD played alongside Paul Curtis in the Harlequins side that won the 1988 John Player Cup final. Here the England lock tells why his former teammate needs help from his rugby friends
ON Saturday 17 September 2016, Paul Curtis, 58, went out mountain-biking with some mates. It was something he had done regularly. A long and distinguished amateur career as a prop with Bognor RFC, Rosslyn Park and Harlequins hadn’t dulled his appetite for exercise. Getting out on his mountain bike was a good way to keep fit and have some fun. “Have a good day,” Rhian, his wife, said. “Don’t come back injured.”
Hours later Rhian received a message on her mobile, asking her to come to the University Hospital of Wales on the outskirts of Cardiff. On arrival she was taken into a side room. “Are you aware of your husband's injuries?” a doctor asked. “Well, I know he’s hit a tree,” Rhian answered, thinking he might have fractured a leg or a collar bone. “It’s worse than that. He’s paralysed.”
Paul had suffered catastrophic, life-changing injuries. He had broken his neck, damaged his spinal chord, paralysed half of his right diaphragm and wrecked half of his right lung.
“I didn’t faint,” Rhian said, “because I was sitting down at the time, but our world came tumbling down around us.”
In March 2017, Paul was transferred to Rookwood, the spinal rehabilitation unit in Cardiff. It had taken six months of intensive care to get him to the position where he was well enough to discover what his future looked like.
It was pretty bleak. Paul is paralysed from the chest down. He has no use of his legs. He can feed himself and shave, and his hands, claw-like following his crash, are now just about able to hold a pen as some of his fine motor skills return. But he is unlikely ever to regain the strength in his shoulders and arms which will enable him to lift himself in and out of a wheelchair and in and out of bed.
Recently Paul was told of a provisional release date in September for a return home. Yet Paul can’t go home because his house is not equipped for him. The doorways are not wide enough for his wheelchair and the bathroom is up some stairs. Rhian has contacted an architect who has advised that an extension to meet Paul’s needs will cost about £100,000. The family haven’t got that kind of money.
Paul played in the amateur days, sometimes going about his trade as a plumber on the morning of big matches. If the changing room smelled a bit whiffy before the game, it was often because Paul had been out unblocking some drains.
Building an extension is only half the battle. Paul needs an additional £50,000 for the care and the specialised equipment to allow him to live at home. Stuff like special surgical boots to stop his feet falling outwards and overrotating his hips which will cause problems later on. Paul was a prop in the days when loose-heads were big, big men. In the UK they only make medical boots up to a size 12. Paul is a size 14. Rhian is trying American websites to see if there is a solution there.
The National Health Service has been fantastic, but there is only so much they can do. “I’vebeen told that they will provide a bed if Paul comes home,” Rhian said. “But it’s a bed just for Paul. I don’t want to be sleeping apart for the rest of our lives. A bed for both of us will cost around £12,000.”
Then there’s the hoist to get Paul in and out of bed and the shower, and the specialised wheels on his wheelchair which might allow Paul to take his grand-children to the beach as he did on Sundays before the accident. A physio table is £4,000, those wheelchair wheels £5,000. Everything is expensive. The equipment, the care he will need every morning and night for the rest of his life. Everything.
If there has been an upside to what has been a wretched few months, it has been the generosity and humanity of the rugby community and the couple’s friends. Old rugby mates, some of whom Paul hadn’t seen for the best part of 30 years, have visited to see what they can do.
The school where Rhian teaches had a curry evening to raise funds for their sixth form prom. Half of the £330 generated on the night was promised to Paul. “His ‘fine. He can still remember every bloody rugby story,”" Rhian said.
Paul’s spirit is still very much intact. “He wants to put something back,” Rhian said, “to meet similarly injured people to tell them, yes, it is black at times, but you can get through those dark days.”
A final snapshot of what Paul is like. Part of his rehab involves working out on a hand bike to build strength in his arms and shoulders, and Paul is determined to shave seconds off his personal best for 5,000 metres – to compete with others in the ward who have suffered similarly appalling injuries.
“I’ve told him he’s crazy,” Rhian said. “I told him he was up against blokes half his age, that he only had one and a half lungs and it was a bloody bike which got him there in the first place. D’you know what he said?’ And?’” Donations can be made via https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/PaulCurtis59
“Paul had broken his neck, damaged his spinal chord and paralysed half of his diaphragm”
Happier times: Paul Curtis on a trip to Australia