Rugby player seriously injured
An Aspen rugby player suffered a severe spinal cord injury in the closing minutes of a match Saturday afternoon in Dorchester, Mass.
Pat Culley, 25, lost feeling from his chest down, teammates on the Gentlemen of Aspen club said, but had use of his arms. Doctors at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston operated on Culley late Saturday night to stabilize the injury and relieve swelling. He remained in the hospital’s trauma unit with family members as of last night, team members said.
Hospital officials declined to discuss Culley’s condition, but teammates called his injuries “critical.” Monday night, Culley was diagnosed with pneumonia and was breathing with the assistance of ventilators, according to Mick Melrose, head coach of the Gents.
“I was with him when the doctor was explaining it to him,” he said of Culley’s injury, “and the doctor said, ‘There’s been cases where they get improvement, and there’s been cases where they don’t get improvement.'”
Melrose, 36, said Culley fractured a vertebrae and herniated a disk. “His spinal cord is still together,” he said, “but it was squashed or crushed in the accident. [It’s] a very serious injury.”
Culley, a scrumhalf who moved to Aspen from California last June to play with the Gents, entered the game against Boston at halftime. And up until about five minutes remained in the match everything had gone the Gents’ way as they ran up a 67-0 lead.
As Culley carried the ball and fended off a would-be Boston tackler, the two got caught up with a third player.
“That got the defender and Pat twisted up backwards, and then the weight of the bodies came down on top of him,” said Melrose.
“Nothing malicious or dirty or anything, just a total freak [accident],” said Mark Williams, a Gent since 1982 who came out of retirement to fill in for injured players on Saturday. “His body was in such a strange position it trapped him. Those of us who were there immediately knew it was serious.”
Aspen trainer Nick Green rushed out to attend to Culley, who was prone but conscious on the field, and an ambulance was called. As the severity of the injury was felt on the pitch, the referee called the game.
“He wasn’t moving, and you just think the worst when you see that,” said Travis Butler, 22, a South African who is one of Culley’s closest friends on the team.
“For me, personally, panic set in,” continued Butler, who watched the play from the sidelines. “Seeing him there helpless really took it out of me. It was tough to watch.”
A Snowmass Village resident, Culley grew up in Santa Rosa, Calif., and graduated from Humboldt State University. Butler said Culley began playing rugby with a Santa Rosa club team at age 20 or 21. He played on Aspen’s summer club team, then on through the winter and spring with the Super League team.
“He’d been on all our [Super League] trips and he’d had a sniff here and there, but he didn’t get too much [playing] time,” said Butler. “This was his first real time in Super League.”
The Gentlemen have established an account to help with Culley’s medical expenses at Alpine Bank in Aspen. The team says further fund-raising efforts are forthcoming.
“We have to help out because it could have been any one of us, really,” said Williams.
Williams, a former U.S. national team player of 15 years, said the occurrence of spinal cord injuries in rugby is “extremely unusual.”
“You hear about it in the NFL,” he said, “but we usually don’t get anything as serious as this in rugby. You just don’t hear about it. That’s why it’s such a tragedy.”
Said Melrose, a lifelong rugger from Australia: “It’s a very, very rare thing to have happened. In 30 years of watching rugby and playing, I probably have known three or four people that it’s happened to, to differing degrees. But I’ve never heard of one like this, where it was in the open field that it’s happened.”
Aspen, which had its streak of six consecutive USA Rugby national titles ended last spring, entered the season with hopes of reclaiming their place as the top team in the states. And now undefeated at 6-0 in USA Rugby Super League play on the season, with one game remaining in the regular season, Aspen’s season has taken on a new meaning.
Aspen is scheduled to host OMBAC (the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club of San Diego) on Saturday in Aspen. Melrose says the game, and season, will go on.
“I haven’t had a chance to talk to the players,” said Melrose, who returned from Boston Monday night, “but I can’t see how that helps anything, by not moving forward. I know Pat doesn’t want us to do anything like that.”
Butler, one of the younger members of the team, put it this way: “We’ve dedicated this next game to him, but I know for the rest of the competition, it’s going to be for him. I know it’s going to keep me going and I think most of the team feels the same way.”
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