Courage in the face of adversity

Robby Nimmo

For most school leavers, the ‘gap year’ is about travel, random jobs, and diving into life full throttle. Squeezed between years of study at high school and the rigours of university, the gap widens to a chasm of adventure … a year of delicious possibilities; a cocktail of hedonism, new places and friendships.

Ben Kende’s gap year has been a year of discovery, but a journey no one would choose or wish on their mates. Or even their enemies.

On August 22 last year, promising flyhalf Kende was representing Hong Kong against Malaysia in the Asian Junior Championships in Bangkok. An innocuous-looking tackle sent him crashing down, and with it, life as he knew it. Ben was unable to walk away from that tackle and is now a tetraplegic, a modern-day term for quadriplegic. Among the things he’d packed for that ill-fated trip to Thailand was a copy of the Lonely Planet. Before starting an economics degree at Sydney University, Ben had been planning a trip to South America with a few of his ‘wing men’ from Island School.

As a striking testimony to the power of their friendship, the group didn’t go. And while the world of Ben Kende and those close to him has changed forever, the 19-year-old has discovered the planet isn’t lonely when you have the support of a close family, friends and the rugby community.

From the initial injury he remained in Thailand in hospital until October last year, as battling severe pneumonia became one of myriad hurdles to surmount. Once back in the Adventist Hospital in Hong Kong, friendship had a chance to take its root in the healing process.

‘When Ben’s friends arrived at the hospital, we started to see something of the old Ben back again. There were no less than six people in his hospital room most of the time,’ says his father, Peter Kende. ‘When some of his rugby heroes like Robbie Deans and Christian Cullen came to the hospital, you could also see it lift his spirits beyond measure.’

Despite reunions and role models, around the corner lay the gap year that was one hell of a J curve, more of a journey into the human spirit than the world. No matter how much support he had, the reality was that it was going to be tough.

Six months in a rehabilitation unit getting used to life in a wheelchair must feel like a lifetime for anyone, let alone a teenager with an infectious lust for life. Poet T.S Eliot wrote: ‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’ For tetraplegics, once the knowledge of the permanence of their situation sets in, the world can become a very unforgiving place. Loss of independence and mobility takes many to the dark recesses of their mind. ‘I’d estimate three-quarters of the people in the rehab unit were on anti-depressants,’ says Ben.

Spinal rehab units are filled with regret, sadness, anger and denial. There is envy at those in a better situation, mixed with guilt at those in a worse one.

‘Days are long. Time takes on new meaning. Everyone is going through the same thing, but they’re all reacting differently,’ Ben says. ‘The younger ones coped better with their accidents. Rehab units are fuelled by testosterone and it’s a bizarre sort of reality to find yourself in.

‘I felt for the farmers, like a 50-year-old lady who had two 500-pound haystacks land on her. The people from the land worried about how they were going to help their families. Every day you’d realise there was someone worse off than you,’ says Ben with an emotional generosity that belies his years.

In a further insight into the adjustment process, an Australian physiotherapist practising in Hong Kong who has worked in this field, said being an athlete helped.

‘No one wants or chooses to be in a rehab unit,’ says the physio. ‘Most end up there via motor accidents, a few end up there because of failed suicide attempts. Rugby injuries are rare. No matter what their life was like beforehand, everyone is in a certain sort of shock. Many are depressed and become apathetic.

‘Occasionally, there will be patients who, despite universal frustration that is immeasurable, want to work hard and will do everything in their power to improve. Those who can emotionally keep their head above water will put in work beyond what’s expected of them. As an athlete, I’d imagine Ben Kende was that sort of patient.’

An inspiration to others

Ben’s sister Natasha, 21, says she is in awe of his disciplined determination. ‘Ben is the strongest person I have ever known. His focus is on how he can make the most of what he still has. Ben gets on with his life and doesn’t let the wheelchair get in his way.

‘This year has been incredibly difficult for our family but ironically although he is the one who has been weakened physically, he is the one who gives us the strength to get through. The staff in the rehab unit in Sydney soon got to know if you couldn’t find Ben, he was in the gym. He spent hours in there every day, sometimes more than he should have.’

Despite differing motivational levels, the ultimate wish of the patients at Murong (the Sydney Rehabilitation Unit) didn’t waver.

‘At times, I worked too hard and overdid it. I learnt that lesson the hard way. For a while, I had to go from the manual chair back to the electric one,’ Ben says.

‘We all wanted what we didn’t have. To be able to walk again, and we all wanted to be somewhere else. I just focused on working hard and getting home. I felt I was luckier than most because of the support I had, partly as my injury happened playing rugby.’

Ben is blessed with an optimistic spirit, but he makes no secret of the power of friendship as a turning point in facing his challenges. It was when some of his friends, such as Tom ‘Pat’ Patterson, Josh Owens, Dan Wilson, Dan Russell, Nick Codron and Karin Ryd, arrived in Sydney that Ben recounts as a turning point. ‘I realised I had to show them around the city my parents are from. We had to go to Bondi, Manly and the Opera House. That’s what I would have done if none of this had happened. It was then that I made a conscious decision that I wanted to be the same Ben Kende I would have been if I hadn’t had the injury.’

Despite having two other children, his mother, Jennifer, decamped to a relative’s house on Sydney’s north shore during Ben’s stint in rehab. Like all good parents, it is palpable that she would swap places with Ben in a heartbeat, and that the pain of watching on the sidelines is, for a parent, as gruelling as living through it.

‘When Ben’s friends arrived in Sydney, his mood lifted and the responsibilities were dispersed. They all became familiar with helping Ben with things like getting into bed, which can take 45 minutes. Their presence helped on many levels,’ says Jennifer Kende.

Josh Owens says their lives changed along with Ben’s and he is adamant his friend has emerged with his spirit intact. ‘The entire focus of our gap year changed. We all saved up then to go to Australia, and some of his friends surprised him with visits. We made sure the periods of Ben being on his own in Australia were as short as possible. We all knew he’d do the same for us.

‘Seeing Ben’s physical and, more importantly, mental journey has been truly extraordinary. I don’t know anyone else who could possibly overcome the challenges he has faced and remain the same positive, outgoing person. From seeing his life in each of the hospitals and rehab centres, it’s clear his achievements have been far more impressive than he would ever let on.

‘I think it is easy to forget Ben has had to live every second of his story and we only know a small portion of what he’s achieved in this past year.’

Arriving back in Hong Kong on July 30, Ben wasted no time in going out with his friends. The family has imported a van from Australia with hydraulic wheelchair equipment. Otherwise, a round trip to Central from the family’s Mid-Levels apartment costs HK$450. Hong Kong only has five Diamond taxis equipped for wheelchair use, and they are invariably booked.

The day-to-day logistics of Ben’s life are endless. ‘Even simple outings take a fair bit of planning. I don’t know how he is going to manage the four-to-five hours of therapy every day when he’s at Sydney University next year,’ says his mother. Natasha adds: ‘People think it’s a huge tragedy Ben can no longer walk or play rugby, but these are the least of his problems. What people don’t realise are the daily difficulties in Ben’s life. Ben tackles every day with determination and tries not to let the little things get him down. For a 19-year-old who was so free and independent, depending on others to help him with simple tasks like showering and getting in and out of bed has been incredibly frustrating. In the past year, he has shown more courage and determination than you could expect from anyone. ‘

Community support

What Hong Kong lacks in wheelchair access, it makes up for in support from the rugby community, which has a ‘duty’ to care for him, says Donough Foley, former chairman of the Hong Kong Football Club’s rugby section. ‘Rugby is a family and Ben is our family. We have a permanent duty of care to him. The Hong Kong Rugby Football Union – particularly chairman Trevor Gregory, Dr David Owens, tour manager Paul Renouf, community liaison officer Robbie McRobbie and Hong Kong coach Dai Rees – have been behind Ben every inch of the way.

‘They have been a role model internationally for unions in regards to how to handle situations like this.’

Help has not just come from Hong Kong’s rugby community. ‘When Ben’s injury first happened, we received calls from Peter McGrath, chairman of the rugby union in Australia saying, ‘How can we help?’ Support has been ongoing from them and many others. Matt Burke is a busy former international with four young children of his own, yet has showed continued support and regularly asks to be updated on Ben’s progress,’ Foley says.

Although yacht racing is his weekend pastime, Peter Kende is the first to point out ‘the rugby community is beyond family’.

Being in the spotlight

Becoming a well-known figure overnight can be overwhelming for anyone, let alone for someone young and adjusting to life without the use of their legs and only partial use of their hands. ‘Sometimes, it’s almost like I don’t know what to say or how to react,’ says Ben. ‘I used to think it was a cop out when people said that, but now I know what it means and at times the support is overwhelming.’

On September 24, Ben will be in the spotlight at a black and white ball at the Hong Kong Football Club. The Ben Kende Foundation aims not only to raise money for Ben, but to improve conditions for many spinal cases and aid spinal injury research. The guest speaker will be Australian Sam Bailey, who has overcome quadriplegia and runs a farm, flies a plane and is a motivational speaker.

With the blissful insouciance of youth, combined with a self-effacing manner, Ben’s name recognition seems lost on him; he’s unfazed by the fact nearly 5,000 people walked around the Hong Kong Sevens this year with a T-shirt bearing his name. ‘People give me more credit than I’m due,’ he shrugs.

During the Sevens, Ben was in the eye of the rehab storm, far removed from the rugby camaraderie at So Kon Po. However, this weekend the wheels are spinning, and he’s going somewhere … not as far as Peru, but an HKFC rugby section trip to Singapore with over 60 blokes. It will be a welcome respite from hours of various therapies, from acupuncture to Chinese medicine, through to physiotherapy and the programme designed in California, known as Project Walk.

Stem cell therapy

The Kende family is keen to see more research into stem cell therapy and have an open mind to new approaches and differing schools of thought.

‘Spinal cord injury is rare in the scheme of things and so equipment is expensive and research still young. So much more research is needed,’ says Jennifer Kende.

Not only is every spinal injury different, every individual’s reaction is different. Although he doesn’t want to re-watch the tackle that changed his life forever, he is in many ways philosophical about it.

‘It’s not like I was playing outside my league,’ Ben says. ‘Sure, I wish it hadn’t happened, but I’ve learnt that regrets don’t get you very far. I pretty much take things day-to-day.’

His family and close friends know exactly how to balance the conundrum of Ben wanting to do everything for himself, of hating to ask for help, of hating being fussed over, with the Ben who sometimes needs a hand. They are there for him in Australia or Hong Kong, where lack of space and level footpaths create challenges at every turn. ‘If only the world was one storey and one big shiny waxy floor,’ he says with a grin.

It’s unanimously recognised that his personality has not changed through this.

‘He has a glint in his eye, a hint of the devilment. You can see he’s thinking, ‘I’m going to go out and have some craic tonight’, he’s still got the joie de vivre of a 19-year old,’ says Foley.

His mates have got used to driving him around in the van and, on nights out, carrying him in and out of a regular taxi in his manual chair if one of the ones designed for an electric wheelchair is not available.

They have been spotted pushing it up Cotton Tree Drive at 3am.

‘They are my traffic wardens. They don’t see the wheelchair, they just see me,’ says Ben, proving that even in a city as modern as Hong Kong, the ancient Greeks like Aristotle knew a thing or two about the enduring human spirit when they said: ‘Without friends, no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.’