Ben’s Story

The Ben Kende Foundation was informally created in early 2011 by friends and teachers of young athlete Ben Kende and the local rugby and medical communities. It was set up in Hong Kong and another entity was created in the same year in Australia, where Ben undertook his rehabilitation program and is now attending university.

A rising star of Hong Kong rugby, Ben sustained a spinal cord injury while representing the territory at the Asian Junior Championship in August 2010 and is now adjusting to life as a tetraplegic with limited use of his arms and no use of his legs.

Ben had always been a very talented athlete and scholar. Born and raised in Hong Kong, as a boy he had excelled at gymnastics and later represented Island School in volley ball, soccer, rugby, athletics and running. A talented skier, he attended several skiing trips with Island School in Switzerland and it was there that he fine tuned his skiing ability. Having won awards for his soccer abilities, Ben decided in his last years of school to focus solely on rugby and to focus on study for his International Baccalaureate. He joined the Academy of the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union, a training school for talented players who are fine tuned for competition. He was due to try out for a professional Australian rugby team (a month after his injury) but the accident prevented this from happening and any chance of playing professional or amateur rugby ever.

The accident took place five minutes into the first game of the Asian Championships in Bangkok on that fateful day of August 22, 2010. While pulling out of a ruck, an opponent fell onto his neck. It was a complete accident, and to this day that player may not know what the result was. The diagnosis was ‘sudden quadriplegia’. Ben had no movement in his arms or legs and was put in a neck brace by the quick thinking physiotherapist from Hong Kong and rushed to a local Bangkok hospital. His parents flew out immediately along with representatives from the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union. After being stabilized Ben had a fusion of the C5 and 6 vertebrae three days later, and that night multiple drug resistant pneumonia set in and took hold for several weeks, stopping him from being repatriated to Hong Kong. Those days in Bangkok were dark days; unable to speak because of an oxygen mask the family tried several ways of communicating by pointing to letters and trying to lip read. Ben’s mother slept in the room because the nurses were poor at communicating.

Three and a half weeks later Ben was airlifted to Hong Kong. After an MRI he underwent an emergency surgery to open up the spinal cord, and it was then that he started to get some return of movement in his arms and patchy sensation in his legs. He then had a tracheotomy surgery and a feeding tube placed into his throat. Happy to be back in Hong Kong, his friends filled his room with laughter and stories until late at night. The supervising doctor was bemused, especially when young leggy ladies wearing skimpy German Octoberfest costumes visited the intensive care unit.

Ben was then moved to his native Australia, where he spent several weeks in the intensive care unit of the Royal North Shore Hospital, and then moved to the Royal Ryde Rehabilitation Centre. Months of physical therapy and occupational therapy taught him to cope with his disability and tried to get back physical gains. There is nothing more mitigating in a situation like this than being with others in the same situation. Some were worse off, and others better off physically, but all in wheelchairs and each with an individual and sometimes shocking and random story. The comradeship helped Ben with his psychological recovery. In meanwhile he was always surrounded by family – his father and sisters took turns with his mother to set up shifts to come to Sydney and take turns to keep Ben company in his rehab hospital.

He then moved in to his aunt and uncles house in Sydney and continued to attend physical therapy, engaging in some therapies at home with the equipment purchased by the fund raising efforts. Disability equipment is inordinately expensive as it is a small non competitive field. Ben had planned on spending his post school time on a trip to South America with his close mates. He had had a job, trying to save up for the trip, as a junior personal fitness trainer for one week only when he had his injury. As testament to the loyalty and character of his friends, they cancelled their trip and instead saved up to fly down to Australia to be with their mate. When Ben got out of rehab hospital and came to his aunt’s house, his friends learned how to hoist him into bed to give his mom a break on the late nights out. They bought an accessible van with a private donation from a generous Hong Kong family, and Ben was able to travel freely around Sydney. When his friends visited, he took them sightseeing and fell in love with the country that had just been a holiday stop for him when he was growing up in Hong Kong.

Dreadfully homesick for Hong Kong, Ben flew back for two months in the summer of 2011, where he spent long hours catching up with his old school friends and watching games of rugby at the Football Club, all the while continuing physiotherapy and getting stronger by the day. As his friends returned to their colleges abroad, Ben and his parents flew to California for two months to attend the world famous therapy centre, Project Walk. At first a bit solitary, Ben soon got to know others in a similar situation and at various stages of recovery, some as many as ten years post injury and still making progress. Ben and his mom stayed in an adapted cottage watching the amazing Californian sunsets. The best friends they made were from Jordan and together they spent many an evening contemplating the strange fates that life had delivered them. Monib, Ben’s Jordanian friend, had been shot by Israeli soldiers during a peaceful demonstration in Palestine and was in great pain much of the time.

Ben has now embarked on the next stage of his long journey. He has taken up his place at Sydney University in the School of Commerce and is living in an adapted room at St John’s College, where he has been embraces as one of the gang, while his mother is trying to set up a new therapy and care program for him.

Ben would like to thank everyone for sharing his story and giving him amazing support. His Dad says “how do you eat an elephant? One bit at a time.” His is a long journey and he is just at the beginning.