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City Weekend

That’s what friends are for: Hong Kong group raises awareness of spinal injuries by completing 10k Disneyland race in wheelchairs

Quadriplegic Ben Kende raced his friends at Disneyland’s Marvel 10k Weekend to fund treatment and build his foundation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 September, 2017, 1:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 September, 2017, 1:01pm

Seven years ago, a rising rugby talent, dubbed the “baby-faced assassin”, was seriously injured five minutes into a game while representing Hong Kong at the Asian Junior Championships in Bangkok. He dislocated his spinal cord and was diagnosed with sudden quadriplegia: limited use of his arms and no use of his legs.

Fast forward to last Sunday and Ben Kende, 25, completed the Hong Kong Disneyland Marvel 10k Weekend alongside four friends – all of them racing in wheelchairs. Together with his friends Jun Sing Lee, Sammy Sinclair, Anthea Lee and Mike Harman, Kende took to the course at the theme park to raise money for his foundation.

The Ben Kende Foundation was set up in 2011 by friends and family to support the Hong Kong-born Australian’s ongoing rehabilitation through fundraisers, from balls at the Hong Kong Football Club to events at popular bars in Wan Chai.

When talking about keeping up the momentum of continual fundraising, Kende said “the wick is only so long on my story”, and explained that in future he wants to raise money in support of others with similar injuries and expand the scope of the foundation.

The foundation set up an online donation page to raise publicity for their efforts at the recent race. The HK$136,000 received from well-wishers will go towards Kende’s treatment, which is expected to cost HK$500,000.

It would likely involve an electrical chip implanted below the damage on his spinal cord, which will relay nerve impulses between the brain and muscles in the body.

A clinical trial at the University of Louisville restored bowel and bladder functions to quadriplegic patients, and limited control to otherwise paralysed muscles.

At Disneyland last Sunday, the group of friends set out on wheelchairs hired from Red Cross, despite having no prior training or time spent on learning how to manoeuvre the equipment.

Lee andSinclair described how the fun “run” gave them a new perspective towards those whoare wheelchair bound.

Breakthrough by Hong Kong researchers offers hope people with spinal cord injuries may walk again

“I couldn’t work out how to turn and I spent ages at the start line trying to figure out how to move backwards. When trying to take photos, we just gave up and ended up picking up the chairs to turn them in the required direction,” Sinclair said.

She has been friends with Kende since they were 12 and studying at Island School in Hong Kong.

“After pushing myself in the chair for just two metres, my arms were burning. It gave me new-found respect for Ben and what he does,” she said.

Lee, who was Kende’s rugby mate in school, said: “At the start there was a slight incline of maybe 10 degrees, and all of us were really struggling. I was at the back of the pack and could just hear Ben laughing in the background. I wanted to use my legs straight away, so I feel I found out how hard it must have been for him at first.”

Lee was on the pitch when the then 18-year-old Kende, having just graduated, had his accident in August 2010. With a tryout for a professional Australian rugby team scheduled for a month later, an opponent fell on Kende’s neck five minutes into the game.

Since then Kende has completed a degree in finance and marketing and is now studying for a Juris Doctor of Law degree at the University of Sydney.

Kende said last week’s event “was a good exercise in solidarity and a lot more fun than I thought it would be”.

“It created an impression on everyone who was there,” he added. “Hopefully that would have created some sort of awareness.

“I have to remind myself that everyone did this voluntarily and it is pretty heart-warming. Hong Kong breeds some very, very good individuals. I don’t know what it is but people who come through here are special.”