2 Months in a Japanese Hospital – OUR STORY!
I can’t remember exactly what I was doing when it happened but I can remember so vividly the way I felt when I heard a huge crash sound and Adam call out in pain as he fell to the ground.
I had just arrived back in Japan the day before after visiting my family in New Zealand and I still believe it was fate that brought me home in time to be by Adam’s side.
I was used to Adam having a bit of niggly pain after playing a full game of rugby on the weekends; normally after putting his feet up and taking it easy for a day or two, he was straight back to work training for next weekend’s game. But something was off this time and the pain only worsened.
By Monday he came home from training hobbling and unable to properly stand or sit up straight. I tucked him into bed with one of his favourite meals, set him up with his laptop and left him to rest. I remember bumping into one of his teammates downstairs at our apartment building and him mentioning how bad Adam looked at training and asking if he was alright. That’s when I really knew things were not good.
You see Adam is as stubbornly stoic as they come and never EVER likes to admit if he’s struggling or in any pain. Ever heard anyone say that “they breed ‘em different down South”…?? Well after being with Adam for almost seven years now, and spending a fair bit of time down in Ashburton (where he’s from) I’m convinced it’s true!! It’s not a stereotype, they really are different! Haha
They don’t like to show too much emotion, play their cards close to the chest, and almost instinctively know to just suck it up and get on with it whenever something doesn’t go according to plan. That was my Adam Thomson to a T.
So on December 19th at just after 11pm when I rushed to the bedroom and found my strong 6ft5 southern giant collapsed on the floor in the foetal position, screaming and writhing in pain, I could literally hear the sound of my heart pounding in my eardrums. I tried to stay calm as I clumsily fumbled with my phone trying to call our Japanese translator to ask for help.
It wasn’t until the fifth failed attempt for her to answer that the gravity of the situation hit me. I was alone. In our little apartment 2 hours out of Tokyo, in a new place both Adam & I had only been at for barely three months. I didn’t know my way around, I only knew a small handful of people but not very well and I had no family to turn to. It was late and as Adam lay on the floor in agony and begging me to help him, I fought back the tears & tried my best to hold it together. I could hear myself telling him everything was going to be alright when I wasn’t even sure if it was.
I have never felt more helpless or afraid than I did that night. I remember trying to go through Adam’s phone searching for people in his team that might be able to help me. Adam was unable to speak to me at this point so I did the only thing I could think of, which was to run downstairs to an apartment that belonged to Adam’s teammate Tino and his partner Hine and ask for help. Luckily they woke up and Tino rang Dave, one of their coaches who ended up rushing over with one of the younger players who could speak Japanese.
Unable to move, they had to lift my 112kg Southern giant and carry him down to the car.
We drove around for an hour trying to search for an A&E that could help us and got turned away by two, before finally arriving at a third hospital that agreed to admit Adam and help us.
With no hospital staff around who could speak any English, it became increasingly frustrating and challenging to get Adam the medical attention he needed.
They were doing their best and I could see that, but the language barrier and the fact that they were only willing to give Adam suppository panadol to relieve his pain, made me want to scream and shake them.
The staff were kind enough to allow me to sleep on the floor next to Adam so I was able to be there if he needed anything and I prayed that we would wake up and realise it was all just a bad dream. By morning, Adam’s team doctor had requested for him to be transferred to his hospital where he could take over Adam’s case and conduct all the tests he required in search of a diagnosis.
I look back now and feel so incredibly grateful that Adam’s rugby team doctor happened to be a spinal specialist, but at the time I had no idea just how fortunate we were.
Both Adam and myself were so naive at the time and had absolutely no idea of the ordeal that lay ahead of us. At the time Adam was convinced he’d be out of hospital in a couple of days. Boy how wrong he was!
After news broke back in NZ that Adam had been admitted to hospital with a “mystery illness”, we were inundated with messages and missed phone calls from concerned family and friends. I found it overwhelming and didn’t know how to deal with it. After Adam was sedated and taken in for a round of tests and an MRI, I finally made it home to our apartment and all the emotions I had been keeping pent up whilst trying to be brave for Adam just burst out of me. It wasn’t like the pretty “Hollywood” crying you see in movies, it was loud and ugly and involved A LOT of snot but damn it felt like such a release to just let it all out. I needed it. I needed to just let go and allow myself to embrace the fear, frustration and anger that that had been whirling around in me and wound itself up so tightly around my chest I could barely breathe. I showered and sat down on the couch and began to weigh out all my options.
The way I saw it it could only play out two ways. I could think about all the overwhelmingly shitty aspects of our situation and just wallow in it, fall apart, and get someone else to step in and be strong for Adam and I, OR, I could muster up every bit of courage I could find and choose to fight my fears head on. Look for every possible moment of joy and humour I could find in the situation we’d found ourselves in and cling to it, celebrate it and choose to remain positive, NO MATTER WHAT. If not for me, for Adam, because I owed it to him.
After years of living with me and supporting me through my horrendously bad bouts of clinical depression and anxiety as well as my relapses with my endometriosis. On one occasion he basically had to kick down the bathroom door after I had fainted from the pain and knocked myself unconscious. Most of this occured whilst we lived in Tokyo after moving there in 2013. We were away from all our family and friends and only had each other to lean on for support. It wasn’t until Adam’s stint in hospital that I truly realised how unbelievably hard it must have been on him having to be brave for me all the while having nobody to turn to, or lean on for help and support. It was my turn to be brave.
Months prior to Adam’s hospital stint, my brother Ra had booked flights to come and visit us and spend Christmas with us in Japan. We had all been so excited about it and the three of us had planned so many adventures. I couldn’t wait to play tour guide and show Ra around the place I had grown to love and call home after five years.
Ra’s flight from Melbourne landed into Tokyo on the evening of Dec 20th and he had no idea what he was instore for until he switched his phone on and a flood of texts came through all at once. Poor Ra, by the time he made it through customs he was barely able to catch up with everything that had happened and as he walked into arrivals and I saw him I couldn’t contain myself. I was a hot mess! The sheer relief I felt to have my brother there with me was overwhelming and over the next week he was my absolute saving grace. The joy, laughter and support he gave Adam and I during that first hellish week in hospital is something I cannot even begin to describe. Anyone that knows me, knows how close I am with my family and how my brothers and I are incredibly tight, so, to have my brother Ra there who also happens to be really close with Adam was such a huge blessing.
It definitely wasn’t the start to his well deserving holiday he’d envisaged but not once did he complain about it. He would dote on me, reminding me to eat, force feed me vitamins so that I would stay healthy and come back and forth to hospital with me and make Adam laugh so hard sometimes he’d have to call timeout when it would hurt too much.
Ra, I know you’ll read this at some point and I want you to know that I will never forget the love and kindness you showed Adam and I at a time we needed it the most. Forever grateful my little Lama.
On Christmas day, we had finally received the news that Adam would not be getting out of hospital any time soon. Literally as Ra and I were about to walk into his hospital room bearing gifts and home cooking, we heard the doctor give him the news. We stood there frozen, looking at each other, both crushed for Adam as we learnt he had a rare infection that decided to travel and set up home in his lower spinal cord called Lumbar Discitis. It was completely unrelated to his profession and the cause unknown but it meant that he would be in hospital for at least another month before they could reassess his situation.
Ra and I stood outside his room in shock and I knew I had a matter of seconds to decide how to react to this news. I took a leaf out of my Southern BFG’s (Big Friendly Giants) book and took a big dose of “harden up” whacked a smile on my face, determined not to let this news ruin our Christmas surprise Ra and I had planned for Adam.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how Adam chose to react to the news. I thought I had reached the limit of my love for him, that I couldn’t possibly love him any more than I did but then this happened and he proved me wrong. His positive attitude and outlook throughout this whole ordeal has flawed me. Not once have I heard him complain, feel sorry for himself or choose to give up. NOT ONCE, still to this day have I witnessed anything but sheer determination and positivity from him. I thought I knew him well, I thought I loved him as hard as I could and then this happened and he just took everything I thought was certain and flipped it on it’s head and taught me to never ever get cocky and assume I have him all figured out.
To say I am in awe of him and how he dealt with what’s happened to him is an understatement. I have gone through my own fair share of physical hardships with my many health problems over the years and I subsequently know the negative impact that severe or ongoing health problems can have on you as a person. The emotional toll it takes on you can be immense and it’s easy to feel despair when you are robbed of your dignity and sense of independence.
When your body decides to turn around all of a sudden and absolutely shit itself (sometimes that’s not just figuratively speaking either!) and doesn’t want to function the way you need it to in order to live your everyday normal life, it tests you. It tests your relationships, all of them. It puts pressure on your work life and your home life and that is just added stress at a time when you really can’t afford the extra stress and worry in your life, cos your plate is full to the brim. When you add living in a foreign country where nobody speaks English, far from family and friends, at a time of the year (Christmas & New Years) that everyone is together celebrating its an especially rough deal.
My BFG handled it with so much grace and dignity that I hate to admit it but he taught me a major life lesson. I learnt that all the years I had spent in and out of hospitals, all the surgeries I had, the setbacks and obstacles I had faced as a result of my physical and mental challenges didn’t need to be as hard as I’d allowed them to be. That I had chosen to allow those things to define me and defeat me. I stopped believing in myself and my ability to overcome. Adam had never had to deal with health problems prior to his time in hospital in Japan. He had always been strong, healthy and fit and in the past, I often found myself envying him for it.
What I chose not to acknowledge then was the fact that it wasn’t by accident that he was that way. A huge part of it had to do with the fact that he was disciplined and everyday he woke up and made a choice to challenge himself and push his limits physically and mentally. In his chosen profession you can’t afford to be mediocre. You have to believe enough in your ability to be the best and I now understand why Adam used to get a little annoyed when people would sometimes say to him “Oh you’re so lucky to have been an All Black.”
I remember years ago, the first time I witnessed this and after picking up on the fact he was annoyed I asked him why and this is what he said….. “Saying I was lucky undermines all the hard work it took for me to reach that milestone. The sacrifices, the dedication, the discipline, self determination and belief you have to have when you literally have people telling you it’s an impossible dream makes it incredibly challenging but it was a challenge I chose for myself because I believed I was up to the task.” …… It’s that exact same outlook I have witnessed him apply to his time in hospital and his recovery since he was released that I believe has played a huge role in helping him overcome what for some may have been absolutely soul crushing.
The human spirit is as fragile or robust as you allow it to be. If nurtured it is quite literally unstoppable.
During the nearly 7 weeks Adam spent in hospital it was actually Adam having to comfort me several times when things got overwhelming and I would breakdown. I allowed things to affect me more than he ever did and I suppose that’s both a blessing and a curse. I am sensitive, like EXTREMELY sensitive and things like the fact that nobody from his sports management team came to visit him in hospital to offer any help or support got to me. In fact, since he was released from hospital not a single person from the agency that has represented him since he was 18 years old has rung him to even ask how he is doing. To me that is not only unprofessional but on a personal level I find it appalling that they treat someone so poorly who has entrusted them with their career and welfare for that long. I take stuff like that to heart, it hurts me that people can have that little regard for someone when they decide they can no longer profit off of a player, they get discarded and forgotten about.
I think about if what happened to Adam had happened to a much younger player living in Japan who may not have had a wife or partner over there to support him, would he have to just fend for himself and blindly trust that the people around him had his best interest at heart?!! It’s not good enough. These athletes work way too hard to be treated this way.
I am sharing this aspect of our journey in the hope that people become aware of how much goes on behind the scenes that you might not be aware of. If a World Cup winning All Black can wind up being mismanaged this way, what about what happens to all the other professional players we may not know about when things like this happen to them?
Being able to manage a players welfare is just as important as being able to negotiate a big money making contract. You can tell a lot about someone by the way they treat others and that’s something that has definitely become more apparent over the past 7 months.
No words can fully describe how touched Adam and I were, by how many people took the time to reach out to us and offer their love and support, at such a vulnerable time.
Many of them, we had never met before, yet they somehow managed to find it in their hearts to send words of encouragement.
One of my favourite memories of Adam in hospital was on Christmas morning, when I showed him a video that his close friend and business partner Brooke had made for him, featuring loads of friends, colleagues and even a coach or two, wishing him well & letting him know they were thinking of him. In all the years Adam and I have been together, I’ve seen him cry three times, watching the video was one of those times!
I was blown away by the kindness so many people showed us during that time. The hospital visits from friends, including one of Adam’s old teammates Rocky who did a 7 hour round trip just to come and spend some time with him. We had overseas care packages sent from people we had never even met in person, yet they wanted to do something nice for us.
It’s the people who showed up for us when we were at our lowest and most vulnerable that helped us get through it all and I will never ever forget their kindness.
A special mention has to go to two people who sacrificed so much of their time to help Adam and I feel supported when we had nobody else to help us.
Dave Dillon who was one of Adam’s coaches at NEC and Eguchi San, the NEC physiotherapist were there for us from day one and selflessly devoted so much of their time to Adam’s recovery process. I know that I could not have got through it without them both and for that I am truly grateful.
It’s the many acts of generosity and kindness, big and small that Adam and I have experienced over the last seven months that have absolutely humbled me.
It was bittersweet for Adam and I when he was released from hospital and eventually allowed to travel home. Packing up our apartment and leaving behind the country we had made our home for five years was hard. The memories and friendships we’d made were so precious and it was scary leaving behind everything that had become familiar when the future was so uncertain for us.
That’s the thing about life, nothing is promised or permanent and life as we knew it literally changed overnight.
All I knew is that I felt incredibly grateful for the time we did get to spend in a place that taught us so much about ourselves and each other. I was also grateful for the care my BFG received during our last months in Japan. Although basically nobody at the hospital spoke any English the attention to detail and the effort they made in order to make Adam feel safe and cared for was amazing. That will forever be the way I will remember Japanese people. Kind, gracious and so unbelievably generous with their time.
Since returning to New Zealand at the end of February it’s been a time of rest and healing for both Adam and I. We arrived back not having any plans for the future apart from the fact Adam was still on heavy antibiotics for another four months and had to slowly start rehabbing and learning to move his body as his spinal infection began to clear and he regained mobility in his spine. It’s been a journey! But there is nobody in this world I would choose to do life with than my Southern gentle giant.
I could not be more proud of the way he has continued to remain so positive and level headed throughout this whole experience.
We have been based on the Kapiti Coast at my mum & dad’s since March just taking it slowly day by day and counting our blessings of which there are many.
Adam just recently had his follow up MRI scan and the damage in his spine that the infection caused is healing up nicely and he has started running on a treadmill again which was such a huge milestone. I had to try my hardest to play it cool that day at the gym and not start crying and embarrass Adam by making a big song and dance out of it (in my head I totally still was though!)
This time at home has allowed me to finally stop and take stock of everything that happened and feel safe enough to let go, breathe again,reconnect with myself and focus on my needs as well.
As I type this it’s the night before my birthday and it’s dawning on me just how much I’m looking forward to my 35th year around the sun. Life threw a lot of lemons my way during my 34th year on this planet and without sounding too boastful I’m bloody proud of the batch of lemonade I made out of those lemons all things considered! I feel like this next year is going to be an amazing one. I’m stronger, wiser and cannot wait to take on this next chapter of my life.
To my BFG, seeing you reach the milestones you have over the past few months and the way you manage to defy all the odds is the best birthday present I could wish for.
I know you don’t believe in luck as such but I feel so damn lucky to be doing life with you!
Lastly, to anyone reading this who might be going through a time in their lives where everything feels overwhelmingly hard and uncertain, I promise you it’s only temporary.
You need to remind yourself that you are in control of your destiny and that this moment, this hardship or obstacle does not define you, it’s how you choose to deal with it that defines you. You get to decide what happens next. Choose to push past the fear and negative self talk and realise how powerful and capable you are at overcoming whatever life throws at you.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes from one of my favourite writers…….
“The wound is the place where the light enters you” – Rumi