More MS news articles for October 2000

The Observer: England star tackles the challenge of his lifetime

Vic Marks meets his old sporting adversary, the BBC's Alastair Hignell, Now battling Multiple Sclerosis

The Observer - United Kingdom ; 24-Sep-2000 12:00:00 am ; 733 words
BY VIC MARKS

ALASTAIR HIGNELL was a fearless rugby full-back for England from 1975-79, undaunted by packs of rampaging red-shirted forwards as they descended upon him after another Welsh 'up and under'. Now, as a BBC rugby commentator, he requires as much fortitude to climb the ladders that lead to some of the commentary boxes around the country.

Hignell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in January 1999. Now taking his seat at a match can no longer be taken for granted. 'I knew when I went to Bath Rugby Club last week, where a ladder is the only route to the press area, that it would be a test,' he said. 'I wasn't sure whether I could do it. I had to brace myself for the climb.' Hignell, being Hignell, did it.

The cause of MS is not understood, but the illness affects the brain and spinal cord, gradually destroying the nerve coverings and affecting vision, sensation and the use of limbs.

In the last week Hignell's condition has become public knowledge, although BBC colleagues and rugby writers have known his situation for more than a year. He's been surprised by all the attention. He does not seek it, but if his high-profile case can help MS sufferers, then all to the good.

He explains: 'I agreed to try to help raise funds for the Nerve Centre, which we hope to establish at Frenchay [hospital in Bristol, where he lives] as a one-stop centre for MS sufferers. This led to one of the local papers writing a story along the lines of "Rugby star hit by MS" - and now you're here.'

Already Hignell had been involved with the Multiple Sclerosis Society, official charity to the 2001 London Marathon, and will captain the team.

I went to see him with some apprehension. Our paths have crossed several times over the past 30 years but, for two old(ish) sportsmen, talking about disease is more uncomfortable than debating the merits of England's back row forwards. He had always seemed indestructible. I need not have worried. Hignell was open, matter-of-fact, still as positive in outlook as he always was - and relaxing.

As a schoolboy I encountered him on a rugby pitch. We were opposing scrum halves - he moved to full back at Cambridge University - and I waved him to the try line several times.

'You might be able to stop me now,' he smiled. And I had a vague recollection of running him out when batting for England Schoolboys against touring West Indian cricketers in 1974.

He always was an unselfish sportsman. He won 14 caps for England at rugby, but retired in 1980 because of dodgy ankles. He played professional cricket for Gloucestershire until 1983, a brilliant fielder and a forthright, unorthodox batsman. After two years as a teacher at Sherborne School, he covered rugby for both ITV and the BBC.

He first noticed something was wrong in 1997. 'The finger and thumb on my right hand went numb, but they could not find out why. Then there were bladder problems and I remember holding a microphone to interview someone at Gloucester and my hand kept wobbling. There was also pain in my right leg but I thought we could blame the orthodopaedic surgeons for that [he had recently undergone a hip replacement]. But in January 1999 they diagnosed multiple sclerosis.'

Soon he began to address the practical implications. The BBC was informed and remain supportive. He and his wife, Jeannie, are planning to move to an apartment where there are no stairs.

Typing can be a problem, so he's invested in a computer that transforms the spoken word into text, though at the first attempt 'Alastair Hig-nell' came out as 'Where's that by smell'. He knows that his days driving from ground to ground may be limited. And to prevent the disease dominating everything, a rule has been established in his household: half an hour is set aside for discussing MS and the changes it brings to the lives of the family; at other times, the subject is off limits.

He has had tremendous support from the rugby fraternity. When Ian Robertson, the BBC rugby correspondent, learnt of his plight, he suggested a dinner to raise funds. This is on 21 November. England coaches Clive Woodward and Andy Robinson have promised the support of the team. Nigel Wray, owner of Saracens Rugby Club, wrote a cheque to help with the immediate future.

New MS sufferers inherit a great financial burden, which goes way beyond the need to modify their domestic arrangements. At the moment the only drug that checks the decline of sufferers is beta interferon, which costs pounds 11,200 a year. Until recently this was freely available, but the Government decided it could no longer be provided free to new sufferers because it does not represent value for money.

Hignell, 45, is determined to keep working until he's 60. I wouldn't put that past him, but, like all others afflicted with MS, he could do with some government support.

Vic Marks is The Observer's cricket correspondent.