Rugby Union: Jones on journey out of the dark

It has been a hard 12 months for the Wales captain left paralysed by an `innocuous accident'
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WITH THE aid of crutches, Gwyn Jones walked into the trophy room at Cardiff Rugby Club yesterday. "If you'd told me 12 months ago that I'd be sitting here talking about my future I wouldn't have believed it," the former Wales captain said.

It was on the adjoining pitch on 13 December last year that Jones, playing for Cardiff against Swansea, suffered a serious spinal injury, in the 13th minute, from which it was thought he might never recover. For a time he was a quadriplegic. After 12 months of treatment and rehabilitation, Jones, a medical student whose parents are both doctors, will attempt to resuscitate his career in medicine.

"There aren't many things I can't do now, they just take a bit longer than before," he said. "I'm almost walking independently. I'm OK for a couple of steps and then I might lose balance. There's a fine line between walking and grabbing hold of something. It's a question of rhythm and continuity."

It was initially feared that Jones had fractured his spine and would never walk again but the cord was compressed and he had an operation to relieve the pressure. During his rehabilitation he met people who are suffering from total paralysis. "One chap told me I was lucky. He had completely severed his spinal cord. I knew what he meant although I didn't feel particularly lucky. I'm pleased with how far I've come because back in those dark days when I couldn't move at all there was a chance I might remain like that for the rest of my life. It was a frightening experience. When I asked them if I'd ever be able to walk they said they didn't know. I'd just have to wait. Now they're saying I should be able to run. There are still a lot of goals to be achieved. To resume my medical career I need to improve my exam skills and the dexterity in hands and arms especially if I'm going to be putting needles into someone else."

Jones describes the incident which left him motionless on the Arms Park as an "innocuous accident".

"A lot of people still play the video of the incident but it was an accident which could have happened to anyone. It was in open play. I was standing over the ball trying to secure possession and I was hit from both sides. My neck was caught in an awkward position and I found myself lying on the floor. The greatest feeling that I had at that time was not knowing where my body was. That was the first sign that something had gone badly wrong because I couldn't work out where my arms and legs had gone. Then I managed a quick look to where I thought my arms and legs were but they weren't there."

Two weeks before the injury, Jones, a 25-year-old flanker of speed and skill, had captained Wales against the All Blacks at Wembley. It was his 13th cap in a career that had already been affected by a series of injuries. Like Dr J P R Williams, the legendary full-back, he had a fearless approach to the game. Colleagues at the Welsh National School of Medicine were accustomed to seeing Jones as a patient. He had two shoulder operations, a back injury and an ankle injury. He had taken a two-year sabbatical from his studies to play as a full-time professional.

"There are probably more injuries now because everybody's so much bigger and it's a far more physical game. There's more emphasis on the big hits. I used protective padding but I didn't find it much use. Whether rule changes would make it safer is difficult to say. People know the risks."

Jones' recovery began at the neurological ward at the University of Wales Hospital and following surgery he was moved to the high dependency unit. "It was very difficult to cope with that at first. Lying on my back with my head strapped to the bed staring at the ceiling is obviously not easy. To begin with I was unsure what I had done although when the doctors told me I hadn't broken my neck I was a bit confused. Gradually I realised what was wrong and started to see definite signs of recovery. For several days I couldn't move at all and I was even having trouble breathing. There was just not enough power to allow me to breathe as I should. After about a week I started getting some movement in my left leg and then things started to happen.

"What it taught me was how little I know. I knew it was quite rare for someone to get an incomplete spinal injury and I had never heard of someone who was totally paralysed one minute and began to improve the next. I met people who had suffered similar injuries and I was determined that however hard it was I would not give in. I met a couple of people who had done better than me at this stage of their recovery and some who had recovered well after failing to make that much progress in the early days. That being the case, I think the future looks quite promising."

Jones is aware the whole healing process has been aided and abetted by his family, the medical staff of the various institutions he has attended and the stream of letters and messages of support from all over the world.

He has just begun a stint as a rugby analyst for the Welsh television channel, S4C, and on Saturday will be at the Swansea-Cardiff match, the first time the clubs have met since the fateful fixture on 13 December.

"I was actually watching games as soon as I was out of the high dependency unit and back on the ward. We would have my mother holding the television aerial out of the window so we could watch the pictures. There was never any question of me not watching or following rugby. It was difficult after what had happened but I have always played the game and many of my friends are still playing. Initially when team-mates came to see me I thought differently about the position. I looked at them and couldn't really understand why they should want to play on having seen what can happen to somebody. Then I thought if it was me standing there with someone else in the bed I'm sure I would have carried on playing."

Nevertheless, Jones, who seemed destined for an international career when he led Wales to victory over Scotland in 1988 at under-15 level, will never play again.

"Even if I make a full recovery I don't really want to be out there playing after the severity of what happened to me."