Body

Former Silver Fern Adine Wilson's road to recovery after breaking her neck

After a fall at home, the former international netballer was forced to face the terrifying possibility that she might never walk again.

By Megan McChesney

Fishing, boogie-boarding, surfing, paddle boarding ... family summers had never been better for Adine and Jeff Wilson.

In December 2016, the sporting icons were looking forward to many more weeks of fun in the sun with their boys Harper, nine, and Lincoln, eight, and the friends they'd recently gone halves with in a good, old-fashioned Kiwi bach.

But fate had other plans.

On the morning of December 31, former Silver Ferns captain Adine lost her footing on a ladder as she climbed down from a storage loft at the Mangawhai Heads holiday home – and the result was catastrophic.

"I must have missed a rung," explains Adine, 38, as she tells for the first time of the moment she broke her neck, an accident that could have changed her life forever.

"I remember the sensation of falling. Then I hit the ground and when I went to get up, I couldn't move my right side. "I thought, 'Oh, this is serious.'"

Jeff, who was still in bed, yelled out, "Are you OK?"

"I thought, 'How am I going to tell him, without scaring him, that I can't move?'"

It was, says 44-year-old former All Black and New Zealand cricketer Jeff, "the scariest moment of my life – my wife lying on the ground unable to move half her body. A million and one scenarios went through my head ..."

The couple decided not to wake Harper, then eight, and Lincoln, then six. Instead, their bach co-owners, Chris and Shalini Anderson, held the fort while Adine was placed in an ambulance and carefully driven an hour north to Whangarei Hospital.

"If I moved my neck even slightly, the pain ... well, you compare everything to child-birth and the pain was worse than that," Adine recalls.

"I was trying not to let my mind go too far with possibilities and within 45 minutes, I could move my right side again.

"I thought, 'OK. That was really stupid. I've given myself a fright. I've given Jeff a fright, but it's going to be fine.'"

As Adine and Jeff waited for the results of a CT scan, the couple continued convincing themselves that it was just a wrenched neck.

"But when the doctor came back with the results of the scan, the look on his face said it all. He explained that I had two fractured vertebrae. One, the C7 – which means it's the seventh one down – had a simple fracture that would heal with the help of a neck brace. But the C4 was unstable. A piece of bone was loose and floating around my spinal cord. At that point, they basically strapped me down even further and said, 'Do. Not. Move.'

"Poor Jeff had to call and tell my mum and dad. It was pretty tough watching him do that. And it was tough for them. They were understandably thrown."

Within hours, Adine was being strapped into a helicopter bound for Auckland's Middlemore Hospital. The netball ace, who captained New Zealand to gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, had focused on remaining calm but says she "lost it a little" due to the kindness of a nurse doing some final preparations.

"She said, 'God bless you', and I was like, 'Oh God, someone's having to say 'God bless' to me ..."

At Middlemore, an MRI scan showed a bruise on Adine's spinal cord, which explained why she initially lost feeling on her right side.

"The loose piece of bone had pushed into my spinal cord and bruised it – but thankfully it didn't sever it."

An operation was scheduled for the next day – January 1, 2017 – and the surgeons assured them "the greatest danger had been when I fell. That's when the worst had happened. They were confident that they could fix it."

That night – and all the nights following – Jeff slept on a small couch in Adine's hospital room.

"That was a very long night, listening to the fireworks of New Year's Eve outside and we made a pact that apart from the people who already knew, we weren't going to tell anyone else until after the surgery, when we could say, 'Everything's going to be fine'. This was just going to be a blip in the history of the Wilsons."

The pair refused to consider what-if's. "Our lives revolved around being active, being able to play sport, being able to drive the kids to their practices.

I just couldn't comprehend not being able to do those things. So any time I felt myself spiralling into those thoughts, I just pulled myself out of it," recalls Adine.

"My personality has always been glass half-full. Why worry about something you've got no control over?'

As the day of the operation dawned, Adine felt "weirdly" that she was the lucky one.

"I didn't have to wait six hours to know if it had been successful. I was going to be asleep. I was more worried thinking about Jeff, and Mum and Dad and my sisters. What were they supposed to do on a day like this?"

During surgery, a portion of her C4 vertebrae was removed and the piece that was left was fused with the vertebrae on either side. Halfway through the operation, which required an eight-centimetre incision down the back of her neck and another incision on her throat, the medical team had to flip her from her front to her back.

"It was a long six hours,"

Sky TV sports commentator Jeff says. "But I just kept telling myself it was going to be fine."

Continues Adine, "I don't remember anything until the next day. I was told the operation had been a success and that once I could get up and walk and go to the bathroom by myself, I could go home. Maybe this is where my sports background kicked in. I immediately set myself goals and five days later, I was allowed to come home. It's remarkable, really. Ten years ago, I would have been laid up on my back for months."

Adine's mum Annette Rowe and her husband Shane, older sister Leah Harlen, and dad Peter Harper and his wife Tania took turns helping with Adine and the kids.

And while Adine was thrilled to return home to Auckland's North Shore, there were many challenges ahead. During the operation, surgeons had to move her oesophagus and trachea, which temporarily made it difficult to swallow.

"I lived on smoothies, then graduated to mashed avocado, and then KFC potato and gravy," says Adine. "I lost six kilos in 10 days."

For three weeks, she fainted regularly. "I don't know if it was because I'd knocked my head in the fall or because I couldn't eat enough or maybe the effects of the medication, but it happened a lot. I would feel myself going and then
Jeff would somehow know – and catch me. He was very protective and watched me like a hawk."

Adine on court with the Silver Ferns
Adine on court with the Silver Ferns

Adine says her husband rarely left her side during her recovery.

"He really stuck to his wedding vows. He just stepped up and never complained. It was a whole new level of amazing. He was my nurse – he brushed my hair, helped me in the shower and changed all my dressings."

Friends also cranked into action, "dropping off food and taking the kids for a day out."

One of those friends was Adine's former teammate Tania Dalton, who "dropped off fudge and took the kids out jet skiing".

The pair played in the same touch rugby team and, before the accident, trained together every week.

Around six weeks after the fall, Tania took Adine for coffee at a local café. Life, it seemed, was finally getting back to normal.

But just a few days later – on February 23, 2017 – Tania, 45, collapsed from a brain aneurysm during a social game of touch and died six days later, leaving behind her husband Duane and three school-aged children, Tayla, Charlie and Matty.

Adine, Lesley Nicol and the late, great Tania.
Adine, Lesley Nicol and the late, great Tania.

It was "devastating", says Adine. Tania's untimely death was the reason she hasn't shared her story until now.

"I struggled with the unfairness of it all. Why does one person get lucky and another person doesn't? I didn't want to talk about what happened to me because it seemed so insignificant."

Throughout her interview with Woman's Day, Adine never once sheds a tear for the ordeal she has been through, but talking about the death of her good friend, her eyes well up and at times she's rendered speechless as she struggles to put it into words.

The pair played in the Silver Ferns together in 2000 and got to know each other even better in 2001 when they were with the Southern Sting. Adine smiles as she describes her friendship with larger-than-life Tania, who was also "very kind", as "an experience – because she was an experience! We all miss her. We always will."

While Tania's death knocked her emotionally, physically Adine went from strength to strength. Her neck brace was removed in late February and within three months of the accident, she was able to return to her part-time job
as a lawyer.

Apart from her surgery scars "which will eventually fade to look like crease marks", there are no lasting physical effects from Adine's injury.

"I'm grateful that I'm still here, that it wasn't my time. I'm grateful that I can still boogie-board with the kids and meet my sister for coffee. I'm grateful that I had an amazing husband, and family and friends.

"The one lasting effect is that my edges have softened. I'm more conscious of the little things. Even with my training, I used to push myself – go to grit class and go hard and always time my runs.

Now I'm like, 'Why?' I still keep fit, but sometimes I will just walk. I watch my kids at swimming instead of fiddling with my phone. I live in the present much more."

Says Jeff, who left the room for the first part of our interview because, explains Adine, he can't bear to be reminded of the accident, "Right throughout, she remained calm. She's the strongest woman I know.

"It wasn't worth thinking about the worst case scenario. I didn't want to go there.

"Now, we're prepared to say yes to more things. Opportunities come up and we're like, 'Let's have a crack at it.' We never think, 'Oh, there's plenty of time'. We think, 'Let's do it. Now.'"