Life in a wheelchair can't get Dugald down

"THERE was never one particular point when the doctors said to me I would never walk again," says the softly spoken quadriplegic with the ready smile.

Dugald McArthur sits by the fire of his Marchmont home and recalls the terrible moment when a freak rugby tackle instantly turned his life upside down.

It was a fine October afternoon in 1996 when Dugald – then a software developer for insurance firm Scottish Provident and a rising star at Broughton Rugby Club – was chosen to lead his workmates out in an insurance industry tie against Standard Life.

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"I wasn't a natural scrum half," says Dugald. "It's a position I'd always quite fancied but my delivery was never that strong.

"The game started getting quite competitive, and during one scrum their scrum half picked up the ball and I ran round the side to tackle him.

"The next thing I remember I was lying on the ground looking at the sky."

The next few days passed in a blur. Dugald was rushed to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary by ambulance, and then transferred with a police escort to the Western General where a spinal injury was diagnosed.

Soon he was on the move again to the spinal injuries unit at Glasgow's Southern General Hospital. It would become his home for the next 14 months.

"The doctors were always very cautious about making predictions," he recalls. "It was just a slow process of realisation, and adjusting of expectations, but I never had that terrible epiphany when it hit me that I would be confined to a wheelchair all my life.

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"Perhaps having such a large family helped keep me distracted, and entertained, made me feel loved and helped me avoid that moment of realisation, because you're prevented from mulling over what the reality of the injury meant."

The support of Dugald's family was vital following the accident, but increasingly as time went on so too was the help of Edinburgh charity Hearts and Balls, which specialises in supporting seriously injured rugby players around the world.

"I have benefited a great deal from them," he says.

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"It's good to know that there is a support network out there to help people who have suffered not just spinal injuries, but any injury associated with playing rugby."

Dugald is the middle child of a large family of five, originally from Edinburgh but raised in Orkney when their father Bill decided to give up his screen-printing business in the city and become a fisherman.

At the time of Dugald's injury his father, who by then had changed careers again to become a cartoonist with The Herald, and mother Sue rushed to his side. His elder sister Sam, then a freelance journalist working out of Lisbon, and brother Liam, formerly a Belgium-based lobbyist and now MSP for Orkney, also dropped everything and jumped on the next plane.

Along with his younger brothers Fionn and Matt, Dugald and his family worked to rebuild his life.

After 14 months in hospital Scottish Provident gave him his old job back, and with the aid of adaptive technology he was able to carry out most of the tasks he used to do with the use of his arms and legs. When he was made redundant in 2004, along with hundreds of his colleagues, following an Abbey National takeover, he decided to go back to university.

He is now on the cusp of graduating with a degree in social anthropology and development from Edinburgh University. He doesn't as yet have a job and, having split from the girlfriend he was seeing at the time of the accident, declines to discuss any current relationships.

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Today, a month before his 40th birthday , Dugald's outlook is so sunny that he doesn't so much refuse to be drawn towards the negative as completely disregards it.

He sits in his homely ground floor flat in Spottiswoode Street – the modified property he was forced into over 12 years ago when his newly-purchased second floor Stockbridge flat became inaccessible to him – and muses on two recent rugby-related tragedies.

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First, Nuneaton Rugby Club player Daniel James, 23, took his own life in a Swiss assisted suicide clinic rather than deal with his own paralysis caused by an almost identical rugby injury to Dugald's own life-shattering blow.

The following day – September 13 – a 17-year-old Merchiston Castle pupil suffered a devastating spinal injury during a rugby match with Stewart's Melville College.

As one young man's pain ended, another's was just beginning, a pain that Dugald understands all too well.

"However bad it got I never considered . . . that," says Dugald reflecting on the parallels between Daniel James and himself, biting back the word 'suicide' as though it were literally an unspeakable thing.

"It's sad that he felt that that is what he wanted. I don't know enough about his situation or specific injuries to pass any judgement beyond that.

"I understand that it does get frustrating sometimes and you wish that you were still running around the rugby park, but for me it never got to that stage."

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Dugald's heart also goes out to the boy from Merchiston Castle, who, four months on from his injury, will still be in the early stages of realisation that his life has changed forever.

"I don't know the lad, but I'd like him to know that it's not the end. There's lots of opportunities out there – not as many as there were before, but you can still enjoy life to the full.

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"During the early days it did get boring sometimes, especially when the physios went home for the weekend, but my family and friends were fantastic."

Dugald insists that most of the doors open to him before his spinal injury are still open now – "apart from upstairs pubs," he quips – but his life is not without its trials.

He has just recovered from an infected bed-sore that saw him confined to bed for ten weeks. Bed rest for a quadriplegic is very different from that of an able-bodied person.

While most people can sit up and watch television, read a book or get up to make a cup of tea, Dugald was forced to sit staring at the ceiling for over three months while his sore healed.

He says: "I kept up with all of my coursework from university.

The Scottish Rugby Union's Murrayfield Centenary Fund are also very supportive of players with spinal injuries and provide complimentary tickets to all of the home internationals, as well as putting you on a rolling rota for the hospitality dinner. I was their hospitality guest during both of Scotland's recent victories over England.

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Reflecting on the game he was playing when he was injured, he says: "While I'd like to boast about a glittering career in international rugby tragically stolen away by spinal injury, the reality is I came to rugby quite late on and would probably never have made it to that level, so I'll just have to settle for being their lucky mascot."

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THE Hearts and Balls charity was founded in Edinburgh in the wake of a spinal injury to Lismore 2nds player Struan Kerr-Liddell in 1999 which confined him to a wheelchair.

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Since then, Hearts and Balls – which delivers pastoral and financial support to rugby players and families who have been impacted by catastrophic injury, terminal illness and bereavement – has grown to help former players throughout the world, and has provided support to people in the UK, Romania and Australia – where a non-affiliated sister charity, Hearts and Union, has been formed.

Hearts and Balls chairman, Jim Littlefair, says the charity has "grown arms and legs" to help those who have lost the use of theirs due to rugby injury.

It also offers short-term help to families coping with less debilitating injuries, such as a breadwinner temporarily unable to work due to a rugby injury.

Mr Littlefair says: "In the last 12-18 months we have seen significant growth in our awareness, support base and financial position.

"We offer pastoral support to those who need it and request it at any time and in any place, offer advice, guidance and appropriate financial support in the early stages of a catastrophic injury and at any other time, and assist individuals and families at times of serious illness and bereavement.

"Over the next three to five years we will develop plans and actions to assist those impacted by catastrophic injury to pursue education and development and to achieve gainful and worthwhile employment in line with their own goals and ambitions. We believe it will build on our aim of 'helping rugby help its own'."

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