THE GAME CHANGER: Neil Sachse and the injury that altered Australian sport

NEIL Sachse almost didn’t play his second Australian Rules match for Footscray on what would be a fateful day in April 1975.

He was 24 and after winning a premiership with North Adelaide, he was a star recruit to the VFL.

The father-of-two toddler sons believed he would be giving his young family a better financial start with the move east.

But the day before the round-two match against Fitzroy, Sachse had a “kink” in his back so severe he couldn’t bend over to do up his shoelaces.

“I had breakfast and couldn’t get up to take the plate to the sink,” he says.

“I went out to Sunbury at 5pm to the chiropractor and asked him ‘will I play tomorrow?’

“He said ‘yes, come back in the morning and I’ll give you another workover’.

“I went to training that Friday night and couldn’t move but I still wanted to play.”

Sachse got on the field and can still remember everything about the seemingly innocuous clash with Fitzroy’s Kevin O’Keeffe that snapped his spinal cord and left him a quadriplegic.

“I was not knocked out and Peter Welsh tried to help me up to take the free kick,” he recalls.

“I was taken off on a stretcher but I didn’t realise how much trouble I was in until I said ‘you better take my boots off’ and they told me they already had.”

After several months at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital, Sachse was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital in Adelaide, enabling him to be closer to family and them the chance to get on with their lives.

“I was pretty much told up front, this was how it was going to be and there was not much I could do about it,” he says.

Money raised for Sachse and his family kept them going for a couple of years but eventually both he and his wife needed to work.

A former fitter and turner, he returned to work at Bedford Industries, which provided employment and training for those with a disability.

“It gave me an understanding of what my body could do, enabling me to make the decisions to get on with life,” he says.

In 1995, and after time as the fund-raising manager with Bedford, Sachse founded the Neil Sachse Foundation, raising $1.5 million towards a research project at Flinders University, centred on encouraging Schwan Cells to grow past the site of injury and return function to the spinal cord.

My incident changed the course of all sports; now players who suffer a spinal cord injury are left on the ground and they don’t pick them up. They stop the game. The whole regime is totally different. - NEIL SACHSE

Three research papers were published; describing stimulating nerve fibres to grow past the site of the spinal cord injury and on a method of identifying new nerve growth. 

Sachse says the research was ground breaking and assisted in the volume of knowledge that will be needed to eventually conquer spinal injuries.

Now further research is being funded at the University of Adelaide to develop a drug that will reduce swelling in patients suffering a brain injury and the resultant loss of blood flow to the brain.

Sachse says while there is no indication yet the drug will work for patients with spinal injury, the research will focus on ways to manipulate the drug to provide another treatment for those patients.

“It’s about putting money into research and trying to make a difference,” he says.

Sachse says with the cost of care in Australia for those with spinal cord injuries now at $1 billion and expected to reach the third highest ranking among the nation’s medical expenses by 2020, it is time for governments to make a greater investment in both treatment and research.

He says costs are increasing at a rate of $74 million a year and funding for care, treatment and research was particularly important for those injured in their 20s, with life expectancy on a par with the rest of the population.

But it’s not just governments who need to step up with an investment into care and research, he says.

“If we could get a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year including money from the AFL and the NRL,” Sachse says.

“I have tried to talk to the AFL Players Association but I don’t find it very easy.

“You can’t put people in glass houses, people want to play sport but we need to invest in looking after those who are injured.”

Sachse says three players in country leagues in Victoria and South Australia have sustained spinal cord injuries during the past two years.

“We owe it to them, not only for their own lives but also for that of their families and the communities in which they live.”

Sachse says the high profile of Australian rules and rugby league, particularly at an elite level, means spinal injuries incurred by players will always draw media coverage, even if half of those who suffered spinal cord injuries in Australia did so in road accidents.

There has been progress in the process by which those players are treated when they are injured on ground.

“My incident changed the course of all sports; now players who suffer a spinal cord injury are left on the ground and they don’t pick them up,” Sachse says.

“They stop the game. The whole regime is totally different.

“You can’t change the rules too much, you would change the game.”

More recently, Sachse’s foundation has been involved in promoting education about spinal cord injuries, both in primary and secondary schools in South Australia and in the wider community.

A series of animations, delivered online and in the classroom, provides a definition of a spinal cord injury, showing a skeleton and spine and exploring the various levels of injury incurred.

The animations also focus on causes of spinal injury that can occur not only in sport but in accidents in the workplace, on roads and in the water.

Since its introduction, the foundation’s website delivering the animation campaign has received 4500 hits including 2000 during the past two months.

But Sachse wants to take the campaign wider and says it would be ideal to implement at a junior level within the NRL and AFL.

“It would be fantastic to show kids aged 10 to 14, to give them an understanding of what spinal cord injury is,” he said.

“When I was hurt I never knew what a spinal cord injury was.

“The main message is to have fun, but if something goes wrong here’s what to do.”

MORE INFORMATION

To link to the animations aimed at secondary schools and primary schools developed by the Neil Sachse Foundation, go to:

What is a spinal cord injury: http://youtu.be/XzXnBJKYCSc

Work place: http://youtu.be/RTHnOzYSVs8

Sporting: http://youtu.be/bPfjVekGZJs

Water Safety: http://youtu.be/Y7MCxHnMIFI

Amazing adventures of Captain Wendy: http://www.nsf.org.au/school-education-program/ (hit the primary schools link)

For other information go to nsf.org.au

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