Cronulla Sharks prop Andrew Fifita has detailed the harrowing moments after a freak blow to the neck last season that left him fearing for his life.
Remarkably, Fifita will line up for the Indigenous side in Saturday’s All Stars clash against the Maoris when only six months ago many thought his NRL career would be over.
Fifita copped an accidental elbow to the throat from former NSW Blues teammate David Klemmer in Cronulla’s 16-14 loss to Newcastle back in round 22 last season that would eventually see the veteran prop rushed to hospital and placed in an induced coma.
The incident occurred in the second half and saw Fifita pulled from the field, although not until after full-time did he start to notice the severity of the injury, before he was eventually shipped out back onto the field by medical staff and put on oxygen while an ambulance was called.
Revisiting the injury scare in an interview with Sky Sports Radio inside All Stars camp, Fifita revealed just how quickly his condition deteriorated inside the sheds after the loss.
“I didn’t take it seriously until after the game and I was filthy we lost. I was gutted and that was more on my mind than my health,” he told Big Sports Breakfast.
“I went and told the doctor and I whispered to him that I copped a knock in my throat, but see me in the morning and I’ll tell you how it goes.
“I went for a shower and when I came out it started to hit me and I kept asking for an asthma puffer for my lungs.
“I could feel it closing. Then it just went from level 50 straight to 100, which didn’t help the ambulance getting there in time.
“It was really starting to hit like a ton of bricks.”
Fifita added that in the ambulance on the way to Brisbane Hospital his oxygen levels began to plummet to “48 where your normal level would be between 90 and 100”. It became apparent at that point he would require urgent surgery.
The 32-year-old admitted he began to fear for the worst and quickly called his family to say goodbye.
“I just remember leaving a voice message for my wife just to say to the kids make sure they always get this and play it on their wedding night,” Fifita explained.
“I was just thinking everything for my kids. It came to that point in my journey where I thought we were gone.
“I got placed in an induced coma. I didn’t realise and I went to sleep on game day and woke up a week later on game day…. it was bizarre when the doctor told me I had been out for that long. I couldn’t talk. I was paralysed.
“I thought I did something to my neck because I couldn’t move my arms. My left arm was kind of swaying.
“I couldn’t speak but in my mind I was going off my head like, ‘what have you done to me?’
“They just said it has been seven days. From that moment on it has been the toughest.”
The agony didn’t stop when Fifita exited his coma, the Tongan star revealing the fear in the eyes of his children when they first came to visit him in hospital as well as the traumatic stress he’s undergone since the accident.
“I had my kids come in and I don’t want to see it on anyone’s face, but they were actually scared,” Fifita said.
“It was like I was a monster. I was in tears and I just explained to them that it was still daddy. It is something you don’t want to show them.
“We were sitting on the bed and I knew I had to see the psychologist to get over this fear.
“My Mrs dropped her phone on the floor and I was hearing it 10 times louder than it actually was. I jumped from the bed all the way to the corner like something serious had happened.
“I got explained the trauma side of it. But the whole off-season there were things that would trigger me.
“I forgot everything that happened so the little things I knew like driving past the airport and I remember the mask getting dropped.
“Me thinking about that brought back every moment in that ambulance.”
From there, the road back for Fifita has been long and testing, the Sharks talisman forced to learn how to walk and talk again following the frightening surgery.
“I’m not going to lie it hasn’t been the easiest pre-season,” Fifita said.
“From that moment I have not really stopped. It has always been rehab, rehab, rehab.
“The neck I recovered from quite quickly.
“They were going to put another scar across it. But it actually scarred well and you can barely see it, but it goes up the middle range of my neck. I have still got the tracheole where that is covered over.
“It went from being in a coma where I was fully paralysed. I had to learn to walk again. Learn to run again.”
Fifita added: “I have done a lot of work around my psych.
“It is going to get tougher and tougher, but we have talked about conquering our fears. Everyone goes through it. It is that barrier you need to break through.
“I’ve had other hurdles in my life and this is just a new one. I went through 10 different psych’s and didn’t click with any of them, but it is about finding the right one.”
At his age and with all the accolades Fifita has collected throughout his NRL career, many felt the injury scare would mark the end for the Cronulla veteran.
Although remarkably he made the decision to push through the mental and physical pain to now be just days away from his first match since the incident as he prepares to line up for the Indigenous All Stars for the seventh time in his career on Saturday.
“I think the last thing I will do is go out and try and give my wife a hug,” Fifita said when asked about his emotions as he prepares to return.
“I remember when I first came out and went to the game, I just wanted to go round the changeroom and say make sure you go and tell your loved one you love them. Make sure you tell them because you don’t know.
“I think that will be my last message to my wife saying, I’m OK and I’m going to be sweet.”