Recovery: The long road back
A bloody and incoherent Jack Milligan barely recognised his own mother as he regained consciousness after a Christchurch schoolboy rugby game.
The blows to his head knocked him out for five minutes, leaving him weeks later with the balance of an 83-year-old, blurred vision, severe headaches and nausea.
The incident dashed any chance of his playing rugby again.
Concussion occurs every weekend on our rugby fields, but Jack’s head injury was severe.
It stemmed from his Christchurch Boys’ High School 3rd XV match against Linwood College 1st XV on July 13 last year. The game was shaping up like any other, until the 20th minute.
His mother Lisa was on her way when she received the call to ask where she was, and upon arrival at North Hagley Park, she knew things were not good.
‘‘He didn’t recognise me, he couldn’t talk, his face was all twisted and there was blood coming out of his mouth. He wasn’t all there, to be fair,’’ she said.
Jack cannot remember what happened, but it has been established an opposition player on the ground allegedly began lashing out at him.
‘‘So I got up and pushed him and both him and his mate hooked me from both sides in the head,’’ he said. Jack, who was 16 at the time, was unconscious for five minutes and the match was called off. But the referee had missed the incident.
Jack’s case is one of about 250 Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) assault-related claims involving rugby each year.
Christchurch police have dealt with such incidents in the past, but most cases are sorted on-field by the referee or by the official sporting body.
It was two weeks before the seriousness of Jack’s head injury was realised.
The day of the incident he went to Christchurch Hospital and was sent home later that night, cleared of a suspected broken neck and jaw and given advice to return if it worsened.
‘‘I didn’t feel too bad,’’ he recalled.
The ensuing two weeks, during the winter school holidays, he was not himself. He was bumping into walls and doors and a sixth placing at the national schools karting championships was a subpar performance.
It was an hour into his first day back at school after the break when his condition became apparent.
He was making toolboxes in metal technology when he started to feel dizzy and his vision blurred.
Jack was vomiting by the time he got to hospital, and it was not long before he was signed up with the Passionate Enthusiastic Long-term Intervention Management (PELIM) clinic to help with his recovery.
He was visited every second day by a specialist, and saw numerous experts including an osteopath, chiropractor, physiotherapist and a doctor to prescribe specialist medication.
Damage to the vestibular system inside his ear meant he had the balance of an 83-year-old. His rehabilitation nurse, Mandy Donaldson, said his head injury caused headaches, blurred vision, nausea and fatigue, affecting his ability to concentrate.
Jack was ordered to take months off school, and was unable to sit his NCEA Level 2 exams.
His timetable went from a busy schooling and sporting life to showering, 20-minute lie-downs, 30-minute walks and recovery exercises.
‘‘It was hard to just shower some days,’’ he said.
Lisa said the clinic ‘‘was immense’’ in Jack’s recovery, but at times he doubted if he would ever be back to his former self.
A few weeks passed until Lisa began to hear more about what happened that day.
Realising nothing had been done, she took it upon herself to contact Boys’ High to ask what Linwood College planned to do about the incident.
Lisa said some of the team offered to visit Jack and apologise, but she declined because he was in no fit state. Jack then received a letter with ‘‘get well’’ messages from the team, but Lisa was disappointed it came after she questioned what was being done.
‘‘It feels like this was because they were told they had to do it, they didn’t do it off their own back which makes me think they are not sorry about it.’’
Linwood College principal Margaret Paiti told The Press the school’s investigation indicated the fight was not initiated by her pupils. She claimed neither spectators nor the referee saw what happened.
‘‘Because of the lack of clarity around the incident there was no formal investigation by the CRFU [Canterbury Rugby Football Union],’’ she said.
The coach followed up with Lisa the following day, but they were not aware of the severity of Jack’s injury until weeks later, Paiti said.
‘‘The team was brought together on several specific occasions where the impact of foul play in sport, the potential for severe injury and the effect of concussion were discussed in depth. The team sent a card on their own volition and volunteered to meet Jack.’’
Lisa believed the team paid a small price considering what Jack had gone through.
She hopes raising awareness will help other parents seek the right help in similar circumstances, or force teens to think twice before lashing out on the field.
Jack returned part-time to school for the last few weeks of the academic year in 2013, but could not sit his exams. Now 18, he is back at school and on track to complete NCEA Level 2 and 3.
He also has more time to focus on motorsport, making the step up from karting to Rx7 racing, and becoming the latest in his family to inherit the passion after his father, grandfather and uncles raced the vehicles.
But it was tough watching the 1st XV trials from the sideline.
‘‘They said if I got another head knock it would be pretty bad, and I thought it’s not worth it. It’s good to find something to fill the gap and move forward.’’
Meanwhile, he has landed a job with McElrea Racing in Australia for the Porsche Carrera Cup where he has been working in the pit crew during this week’s round in Sydney.
Next month he begins his first RX7 championship series and is busy hunting down sponsors.
‘‘The racing has been going good, I’ve done a few club days and a few test days but the first race of the championship is on September 21, so I’m really looking forward to that.’’
Te Puna rugby player Uenuku Pieta, 22, was sentenced to 200 hours’ community work and $500 reparation after knocking out Bay of Plenty Steamers player Simon Chisholm during a match on July 21, 2012 at Maramatanga Park, Te Puna.
Christchurch Senior Constable Keith Rose, 59, admitted abusing a ref and assaulting a referee assistant while off-duty and watching his son play football on June 29, 2013. He was discharged without conviction.
Canterbury Fiji Sunday League player was banned for two years after he allegedly king-hit a Coastal Spirit rival and kicked him in the head as he lay on the ground. The victim needed surgery after his cheekbone was broken in three places.
Whetu Barber, 25, of Hamilton was banned from rugby for life and charged after allegedly punching a referee on April 18 during a premier B club rugby game for Otorohanga against Morrinsville. He was remanded without plea after appearing in the Hamilton District Court in June.
Eight Canterbury Chinese Futsal team players were suspended for a year, until the end of the 2014 season, for punching and kicking an opponent on the ground.
An FC Twenty 11 division three football player was banned for 10 matches for punching a Western rival in the face, fracturing his cheekbone. He was charged with common assault.