I FOUGHT FOR LIFE, NOW I’LL TAKE MY DAUGHTER DOWN AISLE
Ex-rugby ace tells how horror bike accident left him paralysed
AS former Harlequins prop Paul Curtis lay fighting for his life he turned to his best pal and said: “If I don’t get through this, walk my daughter down the aisle.”
The 20-stone sportsman had just broken his neck having hurtled downhill on a mountain bike into a tree on the Abergavenny Cycling Trail. He knew he was in a bad way, but he didn’t know he was paralysed from the chest down.
“I came down through a fairly steep section and hit a tree square on,” the 57-year-old said. “I really can’t remember a lot about that but I remember the next guy down stopped and started to phone the paramedics.
“I must have just passed out for a while at that point but the paramedics were there and my friends were there. They were trying to get me stable and sorted.”
Dad-of-three Paul was raced to the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff, by ambulance.
At 6ft 2ins and weighing 20 stone Paul – ironicalluy nicknamed Titch – was too big for a helicopter.
“They had to call mountain rescue or the fire brigade,” he said. “I ended up at the Heath in Cardiff.
“My wife had been in West Wales watching our son play rugby.”
He had survived countless collisions on the pitch. Now he had broken his neck, damaged his spine, paralysed half his right diaphragm and ruined half his right lung.
“My family arrived and they were told I had broken my neck,” Paul said.
“My wife and son and friends, the guys I was cycling with were told I was paralysed from the chest down. It was September 17 last year. Paul’s wife, Rhian, had told him at the start of the day: “Enjoy yourself, but don’t come back injured.”
She said the “impact has been massive for the whole family”.
For the next seven months he remained in UHW.
“As time went by it became clear I had lost the ability to swallow,” Paul said. “My right lung had become paralysed. I was regarded as nil by mouth for six months and so I was fed through the nose.
“That is not something I would recommend to anyone. I celebrated last Christmas with sips of water that had been made thick and gloopy so they would not go into my lungs.
“From there I gradually got better and have started to be able to eat again and that sort of stuff.”
He added: “I had three or four months of lying on my back looking at the ceiling. I listened to an awful lot of radio.
“You don’t know what’s real and what’s not,” said Paul, who also played for Bognor RFC and Rosslyn Park. “I would tell my wife I had done things and she would say you can’t do that, you’re hallucinating.”
The doctors had told him he was paralysed but he had not understood the severity of it.
“To me being paralysed meant I had lost the function in my arms and legs and certain other parts,” he said.
“But I hadn’t thought about my stomach.”
But he is a force to be reckoned with.
“I can’t mope about,” he said. “It’s done. I’ve got to move on and see where I go from here. For the most part I’m pretty upbeat. I’m fairly realistic about where I am and where I’m going. We all have our bad days. Then I sit quietly in bed and have a little sob. But that happens and you move on to the next day.”
When he arrived at UHW he was not expected to live.
“But he only went into intensive care once because he had such general good health,” his wife Rhian said.
“He was such a big strong man. That saw him through the worst days.
“They let me stay at the hospital for six weeks,” said Rhian, 56. “I slept at the hospital while the family were back home in Penclawdd, Gower.
“I would go home to get clean clothes and come straight back.
“I needed to be by Paul’s side. Paul was scared and I was scared.”
After six weeks the ward manager told Rhian it was time for her to go for “my own well-being”.
She has just retired after 34 years of teaching so she can be with Paul when he comes home.
The couple are now getting ready for the wedding of their daughter, Hannah.
“When Paul had the accident and was waiting for the ambulance to arrive he turned to Tony McEvoy, his best friend, and said, ‘If I don’t make it, please give Hannah away,’” said Rhian.
“But now Paul will get to take Hannah down the aisle in some shape or form on Monday, October 23. Paul only gets to give Hannah away once.”
The wedding will be at the Oxwich Bay Hotel, Gower.
“We only confirmed the wedding at the end of May because up until then Paul would only have been able to come out for four or five hours,” Rhian said.
Paul has now been given a discharge date next month.
“Everything was on hold, but now I can go and look for a dress,” Rhian said.
The family is trying to raise £100,000 to convert their home for Paul. On Saturday, September 9, rugby players Will Carling, Mick Skinner, Peter Winterbottom and Mike Teague will be taking part in a fundraising bike ride, cycling 70 miles from Bognor Rugby Club to the Harlequins ground.
Former rugby player Paul Curtis at Rookwood Hospital, Cardif, during his recovery after breaking his back in a mountain biking accident
Paul with Hannah and her fiancé, Liam, and his grandchildren, Emerson and Martha
Paul, right, goes head to head with a London Scottish prop in his playing days