After two strokes following a rugby head injury, Legacy Award recipient Connor has gone on to raise thousands of pounds for charities supporting brain injury in children and young people. Despite the ongoing challenges he faces, Connor is still passionate about rugby and enriching the lives of other young people with an acquired brain injury.
All my life I’ve had to fight. I lost my Dad at an early age and went into the care of my Aunt at just three years old. Then in 2009, when my beautiful Nan passed away after a short battle with cancer, my whole life was turned upside down.
Shortly afterwards, I discovered that playing rugby league helped me cope with my losses and positively channel my anger. I always strived to make my Nan and Dad proud and was doing well at school as well as rugby league. Rugby was my passion and my dream of becoming a professional player was on track. However, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come when I was 14.
During a game against a local team, I took a bit of a heavy tackle, initially hurting my ribs and I felt a bit winded. I was removed from the pitch and despite being sore, I felt fine, going about my day being my usual self. When evening arrived, I was feeling a bit sick and dizzy. I remember getting up about am to go to the toilet and the dizziness was really bad. I remember hearing my Aunt calling for me, but I couldn’t talk, my right side was numb and all I could do was lay there. I was so scared; I didn’t know what was happening. I wasn’t in pain as such, I just felt so weak. I somehow found the energy to let out a sound to alert my Aunt who came in and helped me downstairs and called an ambulance.
I arrived at the hospital and was going in for a scan, lying there not knowing what was happening and doctors all around me. My Aunt was so positive and talked to me throughout. A doctor came in and said if I didn’t get to theatre soon, I would die. I had a blood clot on my basilar artery, which is very rarely seen in children and has a high mortality rate.
Imagine, aged 14 and laying there unable to communicate, unable to cry, unable to tell your family you love them and thank them. I prayed to my Dad and my Nan to help me get through and to look after my family, especially my Aunt and sister, who had looked after me all my life. I was then wheeled into theatre not knowing if I would ever see my family again. I was alone and had to put my trust and my life in the hands of complete strangers.
After four days in an induced coma, I woke up. I remember thinking it was all a dream then realised I still couldn’t move my arm or leg and was struggling to talk. I heard the nurses telling my Aunt who had been by my side the whole time that I wouldn’t walk or talk again and that I would need extensive physiotherapy. The weeks passed and I had another stroke, this time on my cerebellum, which knocked me back again.
Throughout this time the support I had from the rugby league world was amazing. It really spurred me on. I slowly started to talk, eat, and move around a bit. Two weeks after coming out of my coma, I walked the length of the ward both ways. I wasn’t going to let the strokes win. It was then that I started to think about ways of helping others like me, as strokes in children are rarely heard of and there didn’t seem to be much support out there. So, the long days in hospital were spent trying to contact charities and to help raise awareness. Later, I learned that my stroke was caused by a rare tear in the artery in my neck which was from the tackle in the match I was playing in at the time. It was a one-in-a-million chance but the more we looked into childhood stroke, we quickly learned that it’s not as rare as you think. At 14, I didn’t even know what a stroke was, apart from that it was something old people often experienced. My family and I were uneducated about strokes, so we set out with the help of a few charities to raise awareness, not just of stroke but brain injuries in sport too.
In 2016, I was awarded the Stroke Association Child of Courage award and met rugby union legend Jonny Wilkinson and told him my story. Shortly after, at the award ceremony in London I met some amazing, inspirational stroke survivors. I’ve delivered numerous speeches for the Stroke Association and Child Brain Injury Trust and have even spoken in the House of Lords
I’ve now spent five years raising funds for numerous charities that have supported me and my work to raise awareness of brain injury and strokes. Here are a few charities that I have worked with and that can offer advice and help:
I fight for health every day, but if it wasn’t for our amazing NHS and the doctors and paramedics that were there on that morning, who realised what was happening and treated me quickly, I would not be here today to share my story and help others.
I have been so lucky, and I cherish every day I still live with part of the clot on my brain stem, but I’m here and fighting. I still have vacant episodes, neuro fatigue, motor and vocal tics and struggle daily with horrendous headaches. My journey has not been an easy one as the stroke has left me with a lot of challenges, but with support around me I have survived and I take great pride in helping others too I am always happy to offer advice and be a voice for those who don’t have one. Strokes can affect anyone at any age and at any time. I want to educate everyone to know the signs.
Face: Has their face dropped, can they smile?
Arms: Can they raise their arms and keep them there?
Speech: Can they talk?
Time: If you spot any of these symptoms, it’s time to call 999.
I want to say this World Stroke Awareness Day, that you are not alone. There is help out there. I know what it feels like when you just want to be treated as normal, but as time went on and new things developed, I realised I needed to accept the help I was offered. I think many stroke survivors are reluctant to accept help at first, like I was. It’s not an easy journey for survivors or their carers but taking time and not rushing anything helps massively. Here are some of my tips:
Learn to rest and listen to your body.
Always take one step at a time. It’s one step more than what you did yesterday and that’s progress.
Never give up.