Neil Sachse: A determined father spreads an important message

This morning when you woke up and before you got out of bed your body was already priming itself for another day.

Inside your arteries and blood vessels sensors called baroreceptors acted like an automatic choke.

They got the message from the brain that you want to swing your legs out of bed, stand up and stretch. Signals were sent to prime the pump and widen the pipes so that extra blood and oxygen were available.

It happens without you even realising – except if you have a spinal cord injury.

To push on with the tradie’s explanation of physiology – you can’t run an engine if the electrics are short circuited.

This is why one of the most confronting moments for patients with a spinal cord injury is when they first sit up in bed. They immediately pass out. The baroreceptors can’t get the message out and their system doesn’t fire up.

The good news is that the body adapts and learns other ways to get the engine going. The bad news is that the re-education process can take up to two years. Two years of fainting every time you wake up.

Even after you wake up and the system is humming it doesn’t mean you can get up. Someone needs to help you do all the morning things – undress, shower, shave, toilet, get dressed and into a wheelchair. This is rarely done inside two hours.

That is what Neil Sachse has done this morning and every morning for the past forty years.

As I type this story I am going back and forth on the keyboard, putting words onto the page, removing, adding more, editing, checking spelling and starting again. I am not the greatest typist and so the keyboard might feel it is being attacked by two battery hens.

Every day in his office Neil Sachse writes emails and sends letters using his index finger which he has no control over. The digit has stiffened and curled slightly with age. He uses it by rolling his shoulder and moving his elbow. He has no control of his wrists. When something needs signing he puts a pen into his mouth and leans over the page to write his name.

This is the high price of a football injury.

It was almost time on in the final quarter of round two of the 1975 VFL season when it happened. Footscray were going to beat Fitzroy at the Western Oval but there was still some energy in the match.

Gary Dempsey spilled a mark and the loose ball fell into a mess of players. One was Neil Sachse who had been recruited to the western suburbs that pre-season along with Peter Featherby. Both had been premiership and state players in South Australia and Western Australia respectively and with them the Bulldogs believed they could challenge for a flag.

Sachse went for the loose ball and lost his footing. He saw the oncoming Fitzroy player but in the split second couldn’t avoid contact. As he stumbled forward his head hit the opposition player’s hip. Two of his vertebrae shattered.

In the aftermath of what is the most catastrophic injury sustained in VFL/AFL history, many found a small degree of comfort in describing it as a freakish event.

It was no one’s fault, came the explanation. Amazing it hasn’t happened before.

The hoped-for conclusion to that statement would be “or since” but it isn’t true.

Blake Caracella will never forget how the blood drained from the face of the Collingwood doctor who was kneeling over him on a wet Saturday night at the MCG in 2006. Caracella had slipped going after a loose ball and the Brisbane opponent had come low and hard, his hip collecting the Magpie player’s head.

The doctor suspected concussion until he asked Caracella to move his legs. He tried twice without success and then maybe something moved the third time. The fear of paralysis came over them like a dark cloud. Caracella had a vision of himself in the future playing kick-to-kick with his son in a park near their home. The child was due in the next few weeks.

The vertebrae he fractured that night and the resulting spinal cord damage ended his playing career. He isn’t alone. Nick Stevens, Luke Toia, Robert Copeland, Dale Morris, Simon White, Danny Morton, James Podsiadly and Tom Lynch have all suffered spinal injuries, some of which ended their careers.

David Parkin believes he could have been in the same position. In the second quarter of an interstate game against South Australia at the Adelaide Oval in 1965, he was trying to gather the ball when he was collected by Barry Pascoe. He was taken off on a stretcher and reported as suffering concussion.

“I woke up Sunday morning in the Royal Adelaide Hospital. X-rays showed an intact fracture in my cervical spine which nearly caused my retirement. It healed well within four to six weeks and I finished the season OK but I am a very lucky boy.”

According to data gathered by the AFL Doctor’s association on average there are 1.5 lumbar and thoracic spinal injuries per club each season in the AFL.

As a result every season each club goes through a two hour workshop where the procedure for treating a spinal injury is rehearsed.

“First thing is no one touches him,” says Andrew Potter who is President of the Association and long serving doctor of the Adelaide Crows.

“Trainers ask if he is conscious and if the answer is ‘yes’ then take out his mouthguard, clear the airway and call for the doctor. Ask where is the pain? Is it neck pain?  Anywhere else? Check the arms or legs.

“We have two choices. If it is really severe then no one is moving. Call the ambulance onto the field. It may be a cervical injury so tell the umpire we have a problem here and we could be some time. We don’t care what happens to the game we will get this right and worry about the game later. The umpires are very supportive, superbly supportive of this.

The player is eventually placed in a neck brace and put onto a spine board and stretchered off. A doctor arranges for the patient to go to the nearest spinal ward not an emergency room.

To reinforce the method, sometimes the video of Neil Sachse’s injury is played as an example of what not to do. One Footscray player tried to pick him up. St John’s volunteers put him onto a canvas stretcher and he was hurriedly taken off. No one will ever know if or how much this added to the injury.

The price of injury in football is huge.

Every AFL club will have upward of 40 injuries to its squad that require players to miss at least one match. It will mean collectively over 150 games will be sat out by damaged players. Spinal injuries have the most dire long term consequences.

Yet only two clubs – Adelaide and Richmond – have close to a full time doctor on their staff.

Andrew Potter wants the doctors to have a greater say and bristles at criticism.

“I heard one former AFL player say on radio that doctors have too much influence. Really?”

Advances in medical procedures have prolonged many careers but putting people back together isn’t all of their work.

The association pushed hard for changes to the centre bounce rule after seeing a spike in the number of knee injuries suffered by ruckman. It has dropped by two thirds since the changes were brought in.

Results are yet to come in on rules to stop players sliding in and taking the legs from under another and in doing so causing ankle and knee injuries.

The doctor’s greatest emphasis is on protecting the head and by association the spine. In a physicians view the head and spine are one neurological system.

Blake Caracella didn’t receive a free kick almost a decade ago despite the whiplash from the collision causing his neck to behave like a garden hose with a kink in it.

Penalising those who go for an opponent’s head is one stage – the recently announced decision to penalise a player who leads with head in trying to milk a free kick is the next logical step.

What does Neil Sachse make of all this?

In truth, he doesn’t give it much thought other than anything to protect players is welcome.

In the days after his accident, even before he first experienced life without working baroreceptors, he decided to move on with his life.

“I couldn’t blame anyone because I played football and so was part of it. I was 24 years old, married with two sons under the age of three. I wanted to enjoy my family.”

It is a remarkable show of mental strength that forty years later sees him embarking on a million dollar fundraising drive to support research into scanning techniques for spinal injuries. It success will give specialists the clearest view yet of the neurological system and what treatments are working.

The head of the spinal injuries unit at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Brian Freeman, explains that the current system is like navigating traffic by looking at a street map whereas the new system would allow you to see every car on the road.

“In my day they stuck pins into you and asked if you felt anything,” says Neil. “We can do better than that.”

Neil Sachse’s first job after being injured was in a sheltered workshop where he earned less than 15 cents per hour. He worked his way up into fundraising before starting the foundation 20 years ago.

It has raised millions of dollars for published research on spinal cord treatments and an education campaign that is part of the national curriculum.

His greatest achievement? Fulfilling his desire to enjoy his family that now has expanded to five grandchildren.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a journo working for the ABC in SA. His scribblings include "1964", "Fos Wiliams on Football" and the biography of Neil Sachse.

Comments

  1. well done Michael Sexton

    wonderful tribute to Neil Sachse

  2. Dave Brown says

    Thanks Michael and Neil. I am happy the AFL is looking to discourage players from ducking into contests (so poor are they at acting in their own long term best interests) but somewhat discouraged that the MRP’s new ‘good bloke’ system has eased back on protecting the head at all costs.

  3. Great stuff Michael. I look forward to the book.
    I remember Neil Sachse well as a player. Roaming strong marking and rebounding Centre Half Back. A bit in the mould of Glen Jakovich. He was a dominant player in the SANFL of the 70’s.
    Indomitable spirit to make such a mark on life after his injury.

  4. E.regnans says

    Very well done Michael.
    That’s a wonderful example you’ve reported there from Neil.
    Such phlegmatic effort to face each day.
    And again.

    None of us ever know what’s around the corner.
    Wonderful, wonderful support Neil must have received, too, from family, friends, staff.
    Thanks for this.

  5. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Thanks Mike I went to a fundraiser years ago incidentally Chocka Bloch played the guitar yes I did run the raffle and met Neil just a quality individual . Any fundraising re spinal injury deserves our full support

  6. Very enlightening article Michael of what is an amazing story of Neil.

  7. Peter Fuller says

    Superb teaser Michael, it suggests that your book will be a ripper.
    I’m in awe of Neil’s courage, as you describe it. He has obviously managed to translate the mental strength he displayed on the field to coping with the much tougher challenge that this terrible stroke of fortune imposed on him.
    I remember being moved by Peter Rose’s account of the impact of Neil’s collision on his father Bob. Bob was coaching Footscray at the time, and it followed not long after the car crash which doomed his son Robert to spend the balance of his life physically dependent. For those of us who have led a charmed life, the bravery and resilience of people like Neil Sachse and Bob Rose defies belief.
    Thanks again for offering this insight, Michael.

  8. cowshedend says

    Hi Michael, what a wonderful piece of writing, thank you so much for bringing Neil’s incredible story to the forefront again.
    I was there that tragic day, the acceptance of the outcome must take incredible mental strength.

  9. Gerry Both says

    A wonderful article Michael reminding us of the severe penalty that some unlucky players receive from this great football game. Neil Sachse (who survived and continues to provide inspiration) and Adelaide Uni Blacks player Tony Brown (who received an injury that rendered him a quadriplegic in 1972 but ultimately did not survive) are two players etched in my memory. The only comfort we can draw from past events is that procedures (which sometimes appear to disrupt the flow of the game) have greatly improved and are entirely necessary to minimize the chance of similar occurrences.

  10. Charlie Brown (Ethan's Dad) says

    Really enjoyed your article Michael. I too look forward to reading the book. Being a North Adelaide supporter for 50 years I was lucky enough to have seen Neil play. Neil was a really good, physical player who played the game hard in the fabulous North teams of the early 1970s. So it comes as no surprise that Neil has devoted himself so wholeheartedly to such a wonderful cause.

  11. Barry Nicholls says

    Great piece Mike well done. I’m sure the book will be a beauty!

  12. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    I’ll be buying this book Mike, Neil’s is a remarkable story.

    Three Sachse brothers played for North (Dennis and John were the others)

  13. I’ll look out for the book Michael. Spinal injuries would have to be one of the most confronting injuries to face as a sportsman/woman. I only heard about this footballer and his injury recently, I’ll be interested to read your account of his story.

  14. Raj Singh says

    Great article Mike. Inspiring to all.

  15. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Mike as good as a sports book as I have ever read absolutely brilliant ( Mike can you email me Please )

  16. Greg Perkins says

    i have known Neil since i was 12….i played for Walkerville & he was at Gepps Cross…..& they had a `gun` team!! We are still friends today & keep in touch often! Yes…he has done a FAB job with his life..supported by a devoted wife!!As 13yr olds we played golf one day at Par 3 by Torrens….he borrowed Mum`s clubs with her saying..`don`t come hm without them`. His club ended up in Torrens when he lost grip during a swing…so he stripped off…spent 30mins feeling around the bed of Torrens…found it..job done!! His book was a good read!! cheers Perky

  17. Neil Anderson says

    Read Neil’s bio last year. As a Bulldog supporter the image of Neil injured on that day has stayed with me for a long time. For some reason I remember Peter Welsh No. 4? looking down at Neil, horrified about what was unfolding. The other image from those still shots was the lurid colours of the Bulldog’s kit, introduced to show the new colour-television coverage.
    I was interested to read where Neil played his junior footy and the fact he had a brother who was also a champ.
    To be able to overcome his own plight to raise money for others with the same disability, showed his real courage beyond what he displayed on the football field.

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