More MS news articles for Sep 2001

The Interview: Alastair Hignell

I'm incredibly blessed, says the sufferer as he reaches out for the hand of sport An all-round hero has carved out a media career while facing the fight of his life. Tim Glover hears how he is coping

Independent on Sunday - United Kingdom; Sep 2, 2001


Alastair Hignell

Born: 4 September 1955, Cambridge

Educated: Denstone College, Uttoxeter and Cambridge University

1972: Played rugby and cricket for England schools

1975: Scored a record 19 points in the Varsity match against Oxford at
Twickenham. Made England rugby debut against Australia in Brisbane. Made
maiden century for Gloucestershire against the West Indies at Bristol.

1985: Joined BBC as a sports assistant

1999: Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis

Honours: Won 14 caps for England at full-back, retiring through injury in 1979 (he retired from county cricket three years later). Won four Blues for Cambridge at rugby and four at cricket.

Alastair Hignell has a disease that is progressively getting on his nerves. Like 85,000 other people in this country he is suffering from multiple sclerosis. Most people are familiar with the term, particularly its chummy abbreviation, MS. The tragedy is that the medical profession has a name for the illness and that is all.

"There's no known cause, no known cure and no predictable outcome,'' Hignell said. "What they do know is that it attacks the central nervous system and you're left with exposed nerves. Once a nerve has gone they can't replace it. It's not so much a killer as a life-ruiner.''

For the time being one of the most talented sporting all-rounders of his generation is doing everything possible to prevent the illness from ruining his life. Yesterday he was at Kingsholm, reporting for BBC Radio 5 Live on the Gloucester-Northampton Premiership rugby union match. On Tuesday he celebrates his 46th birthday and in a few weeks moves from his house in Bristol to an apartment overlooking the old docks, which have been converted into an attractive residential area. The point about the flat is that it has no garden and no stairs. Hignell can no longer handle either. And his golf clubs and his bicycle are up for sale. "Cheers, good health,'' he said as he raised a glass of wine at the River Station, an establishment that will soon become his local.

MS is particularly cruel because of its debilitating effects and its degenerative process which chips away at the nervous system. "This year I'm anticipating problems,'' Hignell said. "My right leg is becoming a worry and when I'm driving I'm less confident in moving my foot from the accelerator to the brake. You have to look at all sorts of ways to make the physical problems less demanding. The attitude of sufferers is we've got it and we've got to do something about it. It could be worse. Everybody gets down. You don't know what the future holds and there are times when you think `Why me?' ''

The musician Jacqueline Du Pre was an MS sufferer. David Thomas, the former Surrey fast bowler, has it. He is 42 and was diagnosed 14 years ago. At 11am on 8 January 1999 Hignell was told by a neurosurgeon: "Have you ever thought about multiple sclerosis? We think you've got it.''

Hignell knew something was wrong three years earlier. "I had a bladder problem and then a finger and thumb on my right hand went numb. The feeling's never come back. One day I was interviewing Richard Hill at Gloucester and my hand was shaking so much I couldn't hold the microphone.''

A body scan confirmed the neurosurgeon's fears. "I have a cousin who has a benign form of MS so I didn't think there was much to worry about,'' Hignell said. "That's the best one to get. The worst is called primary progressive. Within six months you'll be in a wheelchair and you'll probably lose your speech. There's another form called relapse remitting. You can be down for six months and then recover. The next attack could be years away. I've got secondary progressive. You're on the slope and you gradually go downhill. I have noticed my right hand is not working as well as it was three months ago but I've never had a serious attack. I'm lucky because I can still get around. Writing is becoming a problem. I have to take notes at the end of a game and read them quickly. If I was a surgeon I'd have had to have given up my job.''

He also considers himself fortunate in another respect. Ian Robertson, the BBC rugby correspondent who got to know Hignell when they were at Cambridge University, organised a dinner at the Cafe Royal last November which raised pounds 170,000. In the haphazard fashion in which the disease is treated in Britain, the money allows Hignell to buy time, specifically in the use of the drug Beta Interferon. It limits the number of relapses, but the problem is that the National Institute of Clinical Excellence will not recommend it to be available on the NHS. They think it hasn't been proven enough and that it does not help everybody, particularly advanced cases. In the Bristol area there is funding only for 12 people to receive the drug. When Hignell asked the local health Trust for Beta Interferon he was told he was in the wrong category. If he'd been a "relapse" patient rather than a "progressive"' he would have qualified.

The drug is expensive - "companies charge whatever they think they can get away with" said Hignell - hence the charity dinner. "I'm incredibly blessed. My friends in sport have been fantastic.'' He spends pounds 11,200 a year injecting himself three times a week. After each bout he feels as if he has a very bad case of flu.

Hignell was the non-running captain for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the national charity, at the last London Marathon and he intends to do a lot more. He is trying to raise pounds 1,250,000 to build a specialist centre.

He attends an MS treatment centre at Nailsea. "It's in an industrial estate and has far too many people to deal with. The problem in this country is that everything is fragmented. The centre I visit is not connected to the NHS. There's no such thing as a one-stop MS shop and there should be central clinics dealing with both treatment and research. People end up traipsing all around the country and the one thing you don't have is energy. A walk of 50 yards can be hard work. There are a number of angry people at the treatment centre.''

Hignell was born in Cambridge, the son of a doctor who became a Group Captain in the RAF. Tony Hignell, who had three sons and a daughter, threw the javelin for Great Britain at the Empire Games in Auckland 50 years ago and was a useful cricketer. Alastair attended his father's alma mater, Denstone College in Uttoxeter, where he excelled at rugby and cricket. He played for England schools at both sports.

"I always thought I'd be a professional cricketer. I'd played with Paul Parker, Peter Roebuck, Chris Tavare and Vic Marks.'' At 18 he was offered a contract by Gloucestershire, earning pounds 800 for six months' work and for a glorious year played county cricket in the summer (he was a middle- order batsman and outstanding fielder) and rugby for Bristol in the winter. In 1974 he went to Cambridge to read history and Robertson, who was looking for a goal- kicker, asked him to switch from scrum-half to full-back. His debut was against Cardiff at Grange Road. "Gerald Davies was on the right wing and when I lined him up for a tackle he stepped off his right foot. He was under the posts and I was amongst my mates in the stand.''

In 1975 Hignell scored a record 19 points in the Varsity match and the same year was selected as a full-back in an experimental England squad for a tour to Australia. His first cap came in the notorious "Battle of Ballymore" where the Gloucester prop Mike Burton got sent off in the second minute.

In all, Hignell got four Blues in both rugby and cricket at Cambridge. He won 14 caps for England but failed to represent his country in a cricket Test. "I got mentioned in despatches but never really kicked on from playing for England schools. I once got a century in each innings for Cambridge against Surrey and Trevor Bailey wrote that this man should go on the tour to Australia. I think he got a bit carried away.'' This was the same Trevor Bailey who deprived Tony Hignell of a cricket Blue at Cambridge.

Alastair got a teaching job at the Cathedral School in Bristol and continued to play cricket for Gloucestershire and rugby for Bristol. He was a West Country fixture. His debut in county rugby came against Herts. And Burton got sent off. Hignell's last cap for England was in 1979 by which time he was painfully aware of problems with his ankles. "I was born with things wrong with them and a specialist told me if I carried on playing cricket I'd have to stop playing rugby.'' He scored 11 first-class hundreds, one of them against the West Indies.

For two years he taught history, and cricket, at Sherborne School in Dorset before a career change which would keep him in the public eye. Following a few stints for Radio Bristol he applied for a job as a sports assistant with the BBC. "I joined at the same time as John Inverdale. The Beeb took a chance that I knew a bit about two sports and they could teach me about journalism. In those days they trained you up. The salary was pathetic but it was better than public-school teaching. Mind you, teaching is the best by far for job satisfaction.''

He joined HTV in 1989, working on World Cups and Lions tours and in 1995 produced Rugby Warriors for ITV. "It was a series on what rugby means to the world and the whole thing was a wonderful experience. After that I was back to reading sports news.''

He joined Radio 5 Live in 1996 and covered the Lions tour to South Africa the following year despite suffering from osteo-arthritis in his right hip. It was after interviewing Jon Webb, the former full-back, that Hignell realised he would need a replacement hip. Webb, an orthopaedic specialist, remarked to the interviewer: "You're walking like some of my patients.'' Because of the condition, Hignell's right leg was five centimetres shorter than the left.

Now he walks with a stick, dragging his right leg along. His wife Jeannie - they have two sons Adam, 20 and Dan, 18 - runs a ceramic design company. "When I was told about the MS I sat her down and told her I'd got something that has no cure. She said it's not yours, it's ours. She has been fantastic.'' Do the sons follow the Hignell sporting tradition? "No. They're punk rockers.''

Hignell's latest defences against the disease involve a weekly session in an oxygen tank. "It's the equivalent of a diving bell. It was noticed that divers who suffered from the bends had scars on the brain similar to MS patients. I'm now down to the equivalent of 33ft. The idea is that you come out feeling much better. I met a woman who says that it gives her enough energy to get through the week and I'm hoping it will do the same for me. The perception of MS is of people in wheelchairs but a huge proportion haven't reached that stage. The most common symptom is fatigue. All you want to do is lie down. The key is preserving energy.'' He is also trying out an electric stimulator. He has two electrodes attached to his right leg which release an impulse designed to help him raise his foot.

Hignell has had some bad experiences, notably at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and in Melbourne for the second Lions Test. "Although I've got a disabled sticker on my car you can't park anywhere near the stadium in Cardiff, which means you're tired before the start. After the match everything is locked and the stewards disappear. I had to find a fire escape and climb six flights up to the commentary box. Melbourne also involved long walks and by the time I got back to the hotel I was stumbling and tripping all over the place. Even small stadiums seem massive to me. I'm going to have to devise a plan.''

For the most part Hignell remains cheerful and optimistic. "MS seems to be striking people of a younger age. I met a lovely girl, the swimmer Stephanie Millward, who was training for the Sydney Olympics when she was told she'd got it. At least I've had a sporting career and a lot of fun. There are worse things in the world than this.''

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