THE tackle that changed Alex McKinnon’s life was a very public start to his recovery from a devastating spinal injury, but most of his war to walk his bride down the aisle has been behind closed doors.
McKinnon has spoken and written passionately in the three years since the March 24, 2014 moment that shook rugby league about the support of his adored fiancee Teigan Power and his parents, Scott and Kate. Now he wants to shed some light on a friend who has been instrumental to his recovery.
McKinnon spent four weeks in intensive care, six months in Sydney undergoing rehabilitation and five months on the Gold Coast, mostly at specialist spinal cord injury rehabilitation centre Making Strides.
To get that positive reinforcement that what you’re doing is right is a massive motivatorAlex McKinnon
But when he returned to Newcastle in January 2015 he found a lack of private rehabilitation options available to suit his needs.
Enter sport physiotherapist Pip Cave, who had been working with the Newcastle Knights for five years and put her hand up to assist.
“Pip is very intelligent, easy to get along with, very accommodating and she loves helping people,” McKinnon said. “She made maybe about 10 trips, a day at a time, to the Gold Coast to learn different things and people from the facility up there would come back down to Newcastle.
“Being able to have someone in Newcastle provide that service which I had adapted into my day to day life makes me a much happier, healthier and motivated person day to day and for them to be able to provide that service in Newcastle, essentially, is life changing.”
Ms Cave was inundated after she appeared briefly on the July 2015 60 Minutes program about McKinnon’s recovery with calls about how she could help others with similar injuries. But neither of her two employers had the available space, or were wheelchair accessible.
Fast forward two years and Ms Cave has opened the region’s first private spinal cord rehabilitation facility, Breaking Boundaries, in Mayfield.
As well as having a special interest in spinal cord injuries, she also sees people with neurological injuries, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, guillain barre syndrome and stroke patients.
Although rewarding, Ms Cave said the career change was anything but planned.
“It was a bit of a shock because it’s a whole different ball game,” Ms Cave of the hours spent in Queensland improving her skill set to assist McKinnon.
“To be asked to be involved in someone’s rehabilitation to such a high level - it’s another complete layer on top of what we do normally. It’s a lot more intense time with a person.
“Sports physiotherapy is very cutting edge but spinal rehabilitation is about improving someone’s life, something I get a huge kick out of. We often have two hour sessions three times a week and it’s all about retraining the nerve and neural pathways to get what is left to function at the highest possible level.”
Ms Cave said a standard session included maintenance exercises for McKinnon’s legs and working on upper body strength, core strength and weight bearing exercises for his limbs.
“Alex continues to make huge gains three and a half years later,” Ms Cave said. “He’s still getting more activity happening in his upper body and he’s learning to use what he’s got more and more.”
McKinnon said as well as maximising strength, mobility and function, rehabilitation was also about reducing discomfort. “Even just doing simple things like different weight programs with your arms, different stretching exercises reduces pain or spasms in your legs,” he said.
“It makes your day so much better and makes you comfortable. I think a lot of people who have a disability probably don’t get to say that they’re comfortable very often, but to be able to feel comfortable is a very important thing, I’ve learned.”
Still, seeing continued improvement has been his main source of motivation.
“I consider myself very lucky to be improving,” he said. “I believe I would be doing exercise no matter what, it’s in my routine and it’s just who I am. But to see that we are improving and to get that boost along the way and get that positive reinforcement that what you’re doing is right is a massive motivator.”
When McKinnon, 25, proposed to fiancee Teigan Power in April 2014, he set himself a goal of walking with her back down the aisle after their October wedding.
“Over the last three years I’ve done as much as I can and I’ll continue to work hard - Teigan knows how hard I work in regards to my rehab,” he said. “At the moment walking down the aisle is physically not possible but essentially I’d love to be standing there down the aisle. With the effort she’s seen me put into the rehab I’m sure she’d be more than happy with that.”
McKinnon said his fiancee and family’s support had been “extremely important”.
“But it’s also important you don’t take for granted that support and do the most you can,” he said. “Sometimes you fall into a comfort zone and might just rely on someone to do certain things and at the end of the day it might be stopping you from growing because maybe you might be able to do that yourself.
“It’s important to definitely lean on and use the support you’ve got, but at the end of the day you’ve got to try and maximise the most of what you’ve got as well.”
This message is one of the key lessons he aims to impart as a motivational speaker.
“Try and identify the things you can control in your life and maximise those,” McKinnon said was the advice he wanted to leave with schools and businesses.
“Understand that sometimes in life there are things you can’t control and you may be frustrated, but try not to be restricted by those. Try instead to focus on the things you do control and really take control of those.”
McKinnon said he doesn’t know what the future holds.
“I am just trying to improve myself, trying to educate myself, trying to put myself out there trying to be the best I can be,” he said. “I’m confident along the way I’ll meet different people and that I will hopefully be able to contribute and add value to a business.
“At the moment I have no desire to align myself with anything, it’s more focusing on myself to be the best I can be so that I can help other people.”