By Rose Barrett
Novel fundraiser ‘Fill the Aviva for Philly’ exceeded all expectations – just like its beneficiary, Philip “Philly” Caldwell.
The 38-year-old’s world was turned upside down after he accepted an invitation to play tag rugby, something to ease the boredom during Covid-19 restrictions.
Self-employed courier Philly was no stranger to a knock, having played with Barnhall RC, St Mary’s, Blackrock, Landsdowne and renowned clubs in Australia.
But that evening saw him take a serious injury which left him paralysed from the chest down, with no use of his arms or hands.
Describing the incident in typical upbeat Philly style, he told Dublin Gazette: “I noted some familiar faces from Landsdowne playing against the College of Surgeons on the pitch beside us. I couldn’t resist doing a bit of showing off and about 20 minutes into the game, I did a few zigs and crossed over to score a try.
“Instead, I gave myself an unmerciful wallop on the head, and while I remained coherent, I realised this was a serious injury. I called out for my pal Andy who was on the pitch beside us; one of the positives that night was there couldn’t have been more doctors attending to me and ensuring I didn’t move before the ambulance arrived.”
Philly, who lives in Celbridge, was immediately moved to the Mater Hospital, the leading hospital for spinal injuries.
He said: “I had no idea what the long-term extent of the bleed had caused and it was a frightening time.
“But I called on Steve McIvor, a mentor and rugby buddy, and together we assessed my injuries, faced the realities and devised a plan to turn what could have been a tragedy into a challenge – the biggest challenge I have ever faced.
“That injury turned my life on its head and it was like facing a whirlwind. No one could tell me exactly what movement/feelings would return or how long it would take. I’m looking at a two year recovery programme, but Steve and Ali, my partner and rock, helped me see the wider picture and to take perspective.”
After three months in the Mater, Philly moved to the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Dun Laoghaire where he continued an intensive recovery programme.
“The team here and in the Mater are amazing,” he said. “They saw I was driven and willing to push myself as much as I could. I learnt it was okay to have a bad day, I’m allowed to feel down, but I don’t allow myself a second down day.
“As tiny incremental feelings came back into my fingers and hands, squeezing toothpaste out of the tube was one of the biggest obstacles I faced. And when I reached the end of the tube, and pushed out the last bit, that was one of my proudest milestones.
“When I got home for 17 days at Christmas, I was nervous. In the NRH, I was making progress but when I got home, it reminded me how far I have yet to go. It takes me ages for example, to get dressed and put my shoes on, but not as long as it did a couple of months ago.
“In the NRH, I was walking about 400m. When I went home, I was nervous as to how I’d manage but I joined Ali in walks around Castletown House – and I completed the 2.5km loop. To be able to go for a romantic walk with my girlfriend, that felt good.
“After an injury like mine, you have to retrain the body. I have to do gym work to strengthen my core and to get more miles into the legs. I’m looking forward to doing that with my family.
“My mam is delighted to be involved with my recovery and I’m getting a dog – a Vizala – when I return home in mid-January. That dog is likened to Velcro, as they just stick to their owner.”
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For Philly, his intensive recovery programme posed serious challenges but also, he feels, will present opportunities particularly returning to the courier business.
He said: “Who knows where my career will take me, maybe motivational speaking, maybe helping others get through a similar trauma, the possibilities are endless.”
After the accident the Phillip Caldwell Trust was set up and ‘Fill the Aviva for Philly’ sold virtual seats to fill the stadium in December surpassing all goals and raising an incredible e200,440.
Monies raised will support Philly with medical expenses, extensive physiotherapy and rehabilitation, along with home adaptations.
Excess funds in the trust will be donated to the IRFU Charitable Trust (RCN 20010331) which supports other injured sports people in the rugby community.