All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for February 2003

Voice of Rugby Faces up to His Toughest Test

11:00 - 11 February 2003

In some respects, Alastair Hignell is an anonymous hero. Listeners of BBC Radio Five Live will know him best as the voice of rugby union.

Before then he was one of the last of his generation to play both professional cricket and rugby.

He's also a husband, proud fatherof-two and local fund-raiser.

What makes it all the more remarkable is that Alastair is also battling the crippling condition multiple sclerosis, but he refuses to give in to the illness.

As he prepares for the Six Nations Championship and the rugby World Cup in Australia, he admits things have changed a lot since January 1999 when he was diagnosed with MS.

"I have got worse over the past 18 months, " said Alastair. "Physically life is very different now. I have lost a lot of mobility, particularly in my right leg, to the extent that I am now registered disabled.

"I have moved from a threebedroom house with stairs in Westbury Park to this city centre apartment, which has a lift. I really can't do stairs any more.

"I have had my car adapted to a leftfooted accelerator and automatic gears. But because of fatigue, I now have a driver who drives me to the bigger matches.

"I have an electric buggy which I use at all the big stadiums. If I have to walk anything over 50 yards, it's hard work.

"There are things I cannot do now such as the great walk from the Paris metro station to the Stade de France, which I used to be able to do, even with my bag, but not any more.

"I start tripping and feel tired, so the buggy helps me get about, and as time goes on I expect to use it more and more.

"My computer is adapted and I have a speech recognition programme, which means I speak the articles I write.

"There are a number of practical things I have to do to cope with the change in my life and I have to accept that the body doesn't work as well as it used to.

"The job doesn't help because it's very unstructured, so now I insist on having Mondays off as my rehab day so I have enough energy for the rest of the week."

At the time of his diagnosis four years ago, Alastair was being treated with the drug Beta Interferon, but a year's course cost nearly £12,000.

He campaigned to make it free on the NHS and recently that battle has been won.

He is currently taking a break from the drug because of the side effects, which made him feel exhausted.

Despite his own experiences of the drug, Alastair says that it has helped a lot of people who should have the choice to take it and have it free on the NHS.

His own biggest supporters have been his wife Jeannie and their two sons Adam, 21, and Dan, 19.

What spare time he has is frequently spent raising funds to build a new research centre at Frenchay as well as working with the MS Treatment Centre at Portishead to help it set up a new site in Bradley Stoke.

However, he says simply living with MS will be his biggest personal challenge.

The enthusiasm in his voice about the forthcoming Six Nations Championship and rugby World Cup is tinged with realism.

He said: "With the Six Nations coming up, I would normally be thinking about the excitement, the interviews, Twickenham and news conferences.

"But now at the back of my mind there is a feeling that it is a lot of work, and how am I going to cope with it?

"I have got to be good for Saturday because that's when I do the commentary, and I have to take the buggy to get around. They are not great things to worry about, but before it would all just be positive thoughts and enthusiasm.

"I am going on the World Cup in the autumn, which is the best part of two months in Australia, and that will take a bit of planning.

"I've got a fantastic job and I'm lucky that I do it, but the MS just takes the edge away."

It is particularly frustrating for a man who played rugby for England and cricket for Gloucestershire.

He said: "Even though I wasn't the greatest trainer, you still get the urge to just pop a pair of shorts on and go for a run or something.

"But MS affects people in different ways and I am lucky in that it has not affected my voice and eyes, otherwise I would not be able to work and that would be the worst thing.

"When I look at my situation I think it probably is a bigger challenge than anything else I have done. There is a certain element of choice to play for England against Wales at Twickenham, it was what I was aiming for. I certainly wasn't aiming to have MS. It's not one you can opt out of, it's there for the rest of my life unless they come up with a miracle cure.

"So it is a far bigger challenge, but everybody gets challenges in their lives. It's something you have to face up to and see if there's something you can do about it."

It's obvious when talking to Alastair that - in sporting parlance - he's no quitter.

He said: "Who knows what the future is? It has crossed my mind that I will have to retire from work, it has crossed my mind that maybe we will have to move again, it has crossed my mind about all sorts of horrible things.

"I may have to be in a wheelchair all the time, there will be lots of difficult times ahead.

"I am not planning for it to happen next week, but you have to be ready to deal with it if it does happen.

"It is a very uncertain future, but everybody has that.

"I love my job. Lots of people would like my job and so I want to keep crossing the barriers that are put in front of me.

"But I'm aware there will be more barriers and it will be more difficult and there will be more times where I think, 'sod this for a game of soldiers'.

"But at the moment my intentions are to keep finding ways of being able to do it and being able to carry on."

© Northcliffe Electronic Publishing Ltd