Staying focused on the game

Robby Nimmo

Motoring back after a yacht race into Port Shelter on a balmy August afternoon, crew members on Impala 1 recall the telephone call with a solemnity that never passes. Peter Kende was expecting news of his rising rugby star son representing Hong Kong, announcing a win against Malaysia in the opening game of the Asian Junior Championships in Bangkok. Instead, it was a call a parent never wants to experience. As Kende’s face became ashen, his crew members could hear a pin drop on board as he asked: ‘Is he paralysed?’

That afternoon heralded the beginning of a different life not just for 18-year-old Ben, but for the entire family. Ben is living in Sydney at the Royal Rehabilitation Centre, where he has been since October last year and will probably remain until June. His mother, Jenny, has kept a beside vigil since the accident.

He is learning to adjust to life as a tetraplegic, the modern-day term for a quadriplegic with spinal cord injury. ‘He has no use of his legs, and some use of his arms,’ says Kende. ‘What he has now is limited. Some extra use of his arms might come back. He cannot grasp things with his hands yet. Ben’s injury is what they term an ASIA B (American Spinal Injury Association) C5 /C6 incomplete.’

The incident that caused Ben’s life to come crashing down was a one in a million. ‘It was a completely innocuous tackle which led to a ruck forming. An opposition player fell on Ben as he was emerging from the ruck. Ben was on-track for a brilliant rugby future.’

It was regarded by many as a certainty the talented Island School teenager would soon be picked for the senior Hong Kong team. Just six months before the accident, when he was 17, he knocked over two penalties in a the First Division Grand Championship battle to bring CBRE Hong Kong Football Club a stunning 16-14 victory over Valley at King’s Park. The promising young fly-half had played at full back that day, proving he was truly versatile.

Sadly, it was not just that game which Ben and his family would etch in their memories for life.

‘It took us about six weeks to get the video of the game. It took Ben a couple of weeks to watch it. He was obviously working everything over in his mind. It’s part of the process of processing the whole event,’ says Kende. ‘It takes time. His attitude and inner strength are quite remarkable.’

Says Jenny: ‘Many thought Ben was an incredible athlete, but in many respects he has shown he is more incredible by his adjustment to a very different life. Ben is approaching his rehabilitation in the way he approached rugby – with complete and utter dedication and total focus. There has never been a half-way of doing things for Ben. He has kept his sense of humour. I am constantly in awe of him. We are learning a lot from him.’

Kende believes Ben is applying the skills he learnt in rugby to get through the adjustment. ‘Ben was an academy player, fast-tracked for senior play. They taught them that any aggression is to be internalised, to win by using strength, not by aggression. I think this mental training, an understanding of the psychology of achievement, has helped Ben enormously.’

This is not just a journey for the person who can no longer walk, it is a journey for the entire family. Just as Ben led his parents with a sailing background into the Hong Kong rugby community, so his accident has led them into a new world of hospitals, rehabilitation and a family that now lives between three countries.

A sister, Natasha, 20, is in her final year of university in Durham, England. Ben was due to head to Sydney University to study economics. For the moment, he is in a rehab unit in Ryde. His mother visits every day. ‘We have no home in Sydney, Jenny stays with relatives,’ Kende says.

Kende remains in Hong Kong with Ben’s other sister, 14-year old Isabella. ‘I fly down once a month for about 10 days.’ Two weeks ago, Jenny came back to Hong Kong, and Ben’s good friend, Josh Owens, is with him. ‘That was a big achievement for Jenny; she couldn’t leave Ben’s side before that.’

Ben has undergone four surgeries, three months in intensive care units in Thailand and Hong Kong, intensive rehabilitation in Australia and fought a multidrug-resistant pneumonia in Thailand. ‘Apart from the injury, Thailand was hard for Ben as he was without his mates. When he got back to Hong Kong and the Adventist [hospital], there was a constant stream of friends – especially schoolmates – with him. He had up to 15 visitors a day,’ Kende says.

Many of those visitors who have rallied around Ben and the family were from the rugby community. A committee of 10 has banded together with the backing of the HKRFU to form the Ben Kende Foundation. Launching in Hong Kong Sevens week, the foundation aims to provide funds for Ben’s recovery and spinal research.

Artist Clym Everdon has donated the art work for a T-shirt which has been on sale all week and today in the stadium. The foundation’s Facebook page features a video. The page has more than 500 members and is growing daily, especially as his friends and the rugby community think of him in Sevens week.

Despite having no use of his legs and limited use of his arms, the remarkable teenager is like every other when it comes to keeping in touch with friends. ‘His iPhone 4 is voice activated, and he can tap on to keep in touch with friends,’ Kende says. ‘He has over 1,000 friends on Facebook who talk to him regularly. This twist of fate has put in him in the loop with new friends.

‘In the Bledisloe Cup last year, Wallabies coach Robbie Deans visited him in hospital, as did captain Rocky Elsom, and even Kiwis such as Sonny Bill Williams and Christian Cullen. He spoke to John Eales, who is planning to visit him in Sydney. Those visits and the rugby camaraderie lift his spirits enormously. You can see it.

‘Throughout the worst time, Ben has the same personality and the same desire to be independent, which we encourage. Before his injury, he was planning to take up his place at Sydney University’s School of Economics.

‘We recently had lunch together in Sydney. With his phone, he figured out a route to get to Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, where he had an appointment, in the wheelchair. It only took him 15 minutes to get there.

‘With a view to his growing independence, we purchased a second-hand van in Sydney that’s equipped for wheelchair usage. The moment he got in it, with his mate Josh Owens, they started hatching a plan for a road trip to Cairns in far north Queensland. Neither of them can drive yet, but this is a minor hurdle for someone like Ben who has been on a steep learning curve in the past nine months.’

While many of his contemporaries are backpacking around the world, Ben’s gap year has taken him on a journey few could imagine.

‘He had taken the Lonely Planet of South America on that ill-fated trip to Thailand, and was looking forward to back-packing there with friends in his gap year,’ Kende says. ‘Ben plans to come back and live and work in Hong Kong when he’s finished university. Rugby is still his passion and perhaps he will forge a career in the rugby community here.

‘Jenny and I walked outside our Mid-Levels apartment the other day, and tried to chart a wheelchair path for him to get to haunts like Lan Kwai Fong. Hong Kong is not particularly wheelchair friendly. As Ben says, ‘the wheelchair is my legs from now on’. We’re just trying to help him navigate his way through.’