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- New Zealand cricketer
Chris Cairns is propped up in his hospital bed in Canberra but still has cricket on his mind. He wants to know about England and their Ashes preparations, specifically whether Ben Stokes will be fit for Brisbane.
Then again, chat about hamstring strains and broken fingers feels rather trivial when Cairns is facing up to the possibility that he will spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
“I don’t know if I will ever walk again and I have made my peace with that,” he says. “It is now about understanding I can lead a full and enjoyable life in a wheelchair but at the same time knowing it will be different.”
It is strange to see Cairns - a giant of a man, whose natural bullishness made him seem even bigger in his playing pomp - so physically diminished. But, as he points out himself, he is simply "lucky to still be here".
The 51-year-old suffered an aortic dissection - an often fatal rare heart condition - in August and was on life support. He was saved by four open heart surgeries but such was the strain on his body, a blood clot formed and he had a spinal stroke on the operating table, leaving him paralysed from the waist down.
Four months later he is living at the University of Canberra hospital in a special rehabilitation facility while modifications are made to his home.
“It has been 14 weeks since I had my injury and it feels like a lifetime when I look back, “ he says. “I have zero recollection of the eight or nine days when I had four open heart surgeries. My wife, Mel, was with me the whole time and I have to refer back to her constantly with regards to what was going on. I was completely out of it.
“I remember dropping kids off at school that morning. But with an aortic dissection you are a functioning time bomb. The tear in your artery is leaking blood and your blood pressure drops. You are in a haze. I remember arriving at the emergency department, vomiting and then they took my blood pressure and rushed me through. They put me upside down to get blood flow down to the brain. Next thing I remember is waking up in Sydney nine days later not knowing what was going on.”
Cairns is not used to being let down by his body. He played 62 Tests and 215 ODIs for New Zealand, and appeared regularly for Nottinghamshire between 1988 and 2008, but his sheer strength would have made him a Twenty20 superstar had the format existed. His huge arms made clearing the ropes a matter of routine, and he was also armed with a killer slower ball that once famously made a fool of Chris Read in a Test at Lord’s.
His larger-than-life reputation on the field extended off it, and not always to his benefits. His standing was damaged by match fixing allegations more than a decade ago that led to a High Court libel case he won against Lalit Modi, the IPL founder. He was later charged with perjury by the Metropolitan Police after former team-mates came forward to back up the match fixing allegations. He was eventually cleared at Southwark Crown Court in 2015 but only after Brendon McCullum and Lou Vincent testified against him.
After the trial he returned to Australia and moved on from cricket, building up a new career working with sport tech start ups. But his illness has rebuilt some bridges with New Zealand cricket, with McCullum one of the first to wish him well publicly.
“There have been relationships which over the last decade have fractured that have been reignited on the back of a new perspective on life. It is almost like everybody has moved on which has been heartwarming,” says Cairns.
“It was good of Brendon to wish me well. He said some kind words which I thought was very decent of him. There is no direct contact between us but the fact he did that was very decent of him and I am thankful for that.
“After the court case people took sides but off the back of this I can’t heap enough praise on New Zealand Cricket and the New Zealand Cricket Players’ Association for the help they have given my family through this time.”
Cairns believes his sporting career is helping his recovery, as he adapts comebacks from injury as a player to trying to walk again. His positivity is remarkable.
“Having rehabbed during a sporting career you understand mental discipline is required. I know that some people in rehab facilities don’t have that background and they struggle with motivation to get up every day. They are not seeing many gains. Having that background and single mindedness will play a role in helping me get to where I want to get to.
“It would be quite easy to give up and accept, maybe this is it. I will try and squeeze everything I can in over the next 12-24 months. Having been in a career when bones and muscles take six weeks to repair, there is no timeline here. I may get a flicker in three months in one muscle but it may take nine months. Your muscles atrophy over time and so then that takes time to build back up. It is one thing getting nerves to turn back on but then you have to build the muscle back up so you can stand and then walk.”
Low moments are inevitable when in a hospital, away from family and coping with accepting that even the most basic things in life are difficult now. “There are dark days. I remember being in the gym when I first got here on day one or day two and I heard an Oasis song over the speaker system and I burst into tears. That music brought back memories of dancing in a nightclub at midnight with friends. It hits you that you might not do that again. But you have to bounce out of that quickly and go forward.”
There is also the sense of opportunity, of using his platform as a well known former sportsman to spread awareness.
“If my story can help that is the deal,” he says. “You just want to talk about it for those coming through and at the start of their recovery.
“I hope that I will be going back on family holidays with the kids but I may be wheelchair bound for the rest of my life. At least I have the chance to be here and live life in a different way if that happens.”