Will Conor be Ok?

 Sean Tweedy is an Associate Professor at The University of Queensland, specialising in physical activity and disability. He has spent his career in the disability sector, starting in the Sporting Wheelies gym in 1984. He is the father of three, including Conor. His children have always called him “Sean” rather than Dad for reasons long forgotten. When Conor lay paralysed from a serious spinal injury Sean was faced with a question that would challenge any parent: is my boy going to be ok?

As a father and an ex-player, I love watching rugby, and I particularly love watching our boys play, from the pre-game chat about who is in the team and the game plan to the post-match analysis. So I was in my element at 1:00pm on Saturday July 21 2018, standing in warm winter sunshine on the sideline of the picturesque main oval at Brisbane Boys College, watching Conor and the rest of the Gregory Terrace 2nd XV running out to take on BBC in the first round of the GPS rugby competition. 

The first scrum of the game occurred at 1:10pm and when it collapsed I was so absorbed in the game that I didn’t notice that one boy remained lying on the ground and hadn’t moved. By the time I realised it was Conor, a doctor had raced on to the field and was stabilizing his neck. 

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This is clearly not a good situation. However, while I knew it was possible that Conor might have a spinal cord injury, I also knew that from a statistical perspective, the possibility was remote – scrum collapses rarely lead to cord injuries.

When I arrived at Conor’s side there were several people around his head and so I positioned myself down near his hips. I was outside his line of sight down there, so I squatted down, touched him on the leg and said, “it’s Sean here mate” and Conor said, “Sean, it’s good you’re here”. 

Even then I was struck by his tone, which was not flustered or fearful. He said it just like he usually would when he found me after his game and he wanted money for a burger and a drink. 

Then he told me that he couldn’t move his legs or his arms. 

At that point time really did seem to slow, and my brain worked furiously. 

I paused before I responded because, while I most certainly have my shortcomings as a father, I do always try to be straightforward and truthful with my children. I learned this principle from my own father. He was a dentist and when we were little and he was removing a tooth or pulling out a splinter he would never say “this won’t hurt at all”. His preamble was more verbose but accurate, along the lines of “this is going to hurt, but only for a little bit and I’m going to stop it as quickly as I can”. 

When I became a father, Dad explained that he avoided comforting platitudes because he thought they taught children – either consciously or subconsciously – that they could not trust what he said.

So as Conor lay there paralysed from the neck down I had to think carefully about what I said – I desperately wanted to reassure him, but I also wanted to be truthful. I thought about what I knew – he was alive, that he was breathing by himself, and that he was mentally alert and articulate.

My mind went to the hundreds of people I have worked with over my career, since I began working with physical activity and disability.  Among them are some of the most grounded, thoughtful, happy and worthwhile people I know. In that moment I knew I could honestly tell him, hand on heart, that he would be ok. 

Not ok in the sense that he’d be able to get up and walk off the ground soon, or even that he would ever walk again – I simply didn’t have that knowledge.

My message to Conor was that although things might look very bleak at the moment, based on my experience and what I know of you as a person, I am confident you still have a great life in front of you. 

Of course I didn’t know whether Conor understood my meaning, but I felt he did. Through my work, Conor has had more contact with people with disabilities than a lot of people his age and the vast majority have been people who have not only managed to get on with their lives in spite of disability, but have lived really good lives – caring, compassionate people who make important social, intellectual and economic contributions to society. 

They are living, breathing exemplars of my new favourite aphorism – the life you live is determined 10% by what happens to you and 90% by how you respond.

It only eight weeks since Conor had his accident and, of course, we are all hoping for great neurological recovery. However that will play out over 9-12 months and we have no control over what happens. 

What we do have control of is how we respond. 

So far Conor’s response displays maturity well beyond his years and, if he does end up with a serious disability, I have growing confidence that he will continue the great tradition of people with disabilities who have gone before him, providing all of us with a critical reminder of what it really means to “live a good life”.