No looking back for Kende

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2012, 12:00am

For many people perched on the precipice of adult life, the sudden lack of independence that comes with becoming a tetraplegic would be overwhelming. It would be easier to close the door on the future. As Coldplay sing in Fix You, many so afflicted become immutably 'Stuck in Reverse'.

There is not just the sheer frustration and the sense of unfairness. There are the long days of therapy, the 30 minutes to get in and out of bed and the constant companion of knowing that fate has dealt you a cruel hand.

It would be easy to give in to self-pity, to let life wash over you, and follow the song's lyrics, letting 'the tears come streaming down your face, when you lose something that you can't replace'.

For Ben Kende, there is no reverse, there is only forward. Fix You may be one of his favourite songs but for him, there is no time for self-pity, there is only time to make the best of it and crack on.

'I want to get on with life; I want to get back to all the things I would have done before this happened,' said Ben, who has just started his first year at Sydney University.

Things were different when he had just turned 18. The world was at his feet; he had completed his International Baccalaureate diploma programme with a prestigious university place in the offing and exotic overseas travels with his mates beckoned. He was in the zone and in the moment playing the game he loves - rugby. Ben was like many Hongkongers who had just finished school in the summer of 2010: young, seemingly bulletproof, and on a dream run.

Then, when one ruck in the Asian Junior Championships in Thailand went horribly wrong; everything he knew came crashing down. He did not walk away from that ruck on August 22, and he has never walked since.

The nightmare of the reality of his situation set in - for him, his family, his friends, and for all in the rugby community who knew him before.

The past 20 months have been a long, hard road and a whole new reality. Delayed university plans were at times the least of his worries. However, he has been looking forward to university for some time. In fact, he has been champing at the bit to go. Even if that seemingly endless wait led to some anxiety in the final countdown.

'I want to use my brain again, I want to learn again,' he said, seemingly oblivious to the fact he has been on a steeper learning curve than most people his age - or any age.

'I finished at Island School in May, but due to the fact I was heading for the southern hemisphere on a different calendar, I was planning on taking a few months gap leave anyway before I was to start at uni in February 2011. I had to defer my start date. We passed the milestone of 18 months since the accident a few days before I headed to Sydney. It was also the first anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake.'

In his extended unplanned 'gap year', Ben has not done the overseas trips he had planned with his posse of close mates, who he calls 'the usual suspects'. He spent months in hospital in Thailand, contracted pneumonia, eventually flew back to Hong Kong, flew to Australia for intensive rehabilitation in October 2010, then back to Hong Kong in July last year.

'It's not like I didn't get to travel. I was grateful for the Project Walk trip to California for two months from October to December last year. It was lonely at first, but then I got to know plenty of others in a similar situation. The treatment moved me to a new level. A lot of people there were in a similar demographic.'

The programme is intensive and some say radical. But Ben's mother, Jennifer, is pleased with the gains, 'Ben can now stand assisted by one person and has measurably improved muscle tone. At Project Walk, they do exercise standing up and build the core. When you can stand, they walk your legs.'

His long-term prognosis cannot be determined, but Jennifer has an optimistic view: 'No one can offer you a long-term view. The traditional belief that the gains you get in the first two years are the most you will get are being revised to three or four years. The Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore managed to get actor Christopher Reeve walking in water after four years. There's a new mindset and things aren't quantified yet. Stem-cell therapy under Dr Wise Young, who treated Reeve, is also changing traditional thinking.'

In Sydney rehabilitation, Ben learnt to open and close his hands. 'He'd like to do more work on that, too. Apart from Kennedy Krieger, there's a place in Dallas that has a specialty in increasing hand movement. '

Like the friends he made in the rehab unit in Australia, most of the people at Project Walk had found their way there through car accidents, and most were under 30. In countries like Australia with vast open spaces, cars travel fast and the journeys are long. About 80 to 90 per cent of all people in Australia and the States who end up quadriplegics do so because of motor accidents.

'At least I ended up here doing something I love. If it had to happen, I am glad it happened this way, not doing something stupid or reckless, although some people say that playing rugby is pretty stupid,' Ben said. 'There's got to be an irony in the fact that I've done lots of pretty stupid things and none of them put me in a wheelchair. I want the people I meet now at university to know who I was beforehand, that's important to me.'

Ben admits he is slightly envious of those he met in rehab in Sydney who have gone back to their careers. 'In many respects, it would be easier to go back to the job you had as many have done. I was at an in-between stage of my life, so in some respects the timing was not on my side. I don't really know where my life will end up, as it was at the stage of being an open book. People like Sam Bailey [a quadriplegic and motivational speaker who spoke at a Ben Kende Foundation fund-raiser at the Football Club in September last year] have provided me with a lot of inspiration, as have others who have met these challenges. They've made successes of their lives and given me hope.'

It is hard not to wonder if an accident like this would make you a different person. Would it shorten your fuse or give you Zen-like patience? Ben shrugged his shoulders and said: 'I don't think I am that different. It has given me a better appreciation of the simple things. I am less of an idiot and don't go out and ruin myself as much. I've grown up a lot. I was always close to my parents and two sisters, [Natasha, 21 and Isabella, 15] but we are closer now, and I am more appreciative of them.'

But he still has his bad days. 'I get frustrated quite often, it's part and parcel of being a tetraplegic (a new term for a quadriplegic). I am forced to get on with things. Sometimes I get angry, lash out and say things I shouldn't to those closest to me. The physical nature of the therapy helps sometimes, but generally I cope quite well. Everyone has their struggle and their own reality. It's all relative.'

Ben's future career path is an unknown quantity. 'I didn't know beforehand what I was planning to do at the end of uni, and I don't know now,' he said. 'I am studying commerce because business applies to every aspect of life, and I seem to be good at it due to the influence of my father. (Peter Kende is the chairman at financial consultancy Financial Partners in Hong Kong.)

'This university is like Australia's Oxford or Cambridge. It's right in the middle of the city, so it's not that hard for me to get to most places I need to go and the buildings are so beautiful it takes your breath away.'

Although his parents are Australian, Ben considers himself a Hong Kong person. 'Hong Kong will always be my home, it's my comfort zone. It's all I really know. I love Australia and came here in the summer holidays, but it's hard to explain to people here what Hong Kong is all about. I wish many of my friends here could come to the Sevens and experience it.

'Even when we were in school, the Sevens was a reunion, with many at boarding school, or who'd lived here before, coming back. Unfortunately, the university calendar in Australia is not very Sevens-friendly, but I am hoping that when the tournament falls in our Easter break, I can make it.

'It is great to see many of the guys I played with doing so well. Dai Rees has done a terrific job; he's put a lot of focus on the young players. It's good to see the guys I've played with earn their caps.'

Keeping a close eye on Hong Kong rugby is a luxury Ben can barely afford as he settles into a juggling act of study and therapy. Three times a week, he has to do three hours of therapy at a clinic 40 minutes from the university. In between, he has about two hours a day of therapy at the university.

Jennifer has been settling him into the new routines, but will leave him on his own to live in the university's residence when his care and therapy programme have been fine-tuned. It must be gruelling for a parent to walk away, knowing your son cannot.

Despite months of arduous preparation and endless logistics, both Ben's parents know he is at the beginning of a new journey full of fresh challenges. He joined the 262 'Freshies' (Freshmen) out on a fancy dress cruise on Sydney Harbour in the first week, bringing along a bit of South Stand attitude. But beyond the party whirl, there is a lot to sort.

Three wardrobe changes a day alone for the various orientation week events mean hours of work for his parents. If Ben has to be out the door at 7.30am, they are up at 5.30am. The late-night activities mean they wait until 2.30am to put him to bed. Despite this, his father said 'college life is a great solution for Ben's next stage of development as it's communal and teamlike'.

Although Ben might not be able to walk, he takes a lot in his stride.

At his first annual dinner at Football Club last year, the film clip his family had put together had left few in the Sports Hall with a dry eye, as the haunting refrain of Fix You seemed so apt. Perhaps for Ben now only the positive lyrics from the song resonate, 'If you never try, you'll never know, just what you're worth.'