A Rugby League player has been cleared to return to action after suffering a life-threatening brain injury.
Former St Helens and Wakefield Trinity player Anthony Walker has been told he is free to play again after being forced into early retirement because of an Arteriovenous malformation (AVM) within his brain.
Walker, who made his Super League debut for St Helens in 2013, was concussed during a game for Rochdale against Swinton in 2017, with scans discovering a bleed on the brain.
Although he recovered, the forward was unable to pass his head test, and further scans found an AVM, which is a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain.
That forced Walker to hang up his boots.
However, after undergoing radiotherapy, the AVM has now shrunk to the point at which medical staff have told him he is free to return to action.
“I’d had the AVM since birth, so basically they advised me to stop playing straight away and get treatment,” Walker explained.
“I was lucky, because I had no symptoms. They just happened to find it because I’d been knocked out in that game.
“I had options for treatment; they could do open brain surgery, but who wants to go through that in their twenties? So I chose radiotherapy. I started that in May 2018, and when I went they said it was the smallest one they’d ever seen.
“In my head, I thought that meant it would shrink more quickly, but they explained that if you have 20 stitches or just one, they still heal at the same pace.”
However, the prognosis had given Walker hope that he would one day be able to return to the field.
“I’ve been itching to return ever since and I tried to play last year. I had to sign a waiver to say I was mentally sound and I understood what I was doing, but Dr Chris Brookes, who is the medical head of the RFL, said he wasn’t comfortable with it.
“He told me I had to get an MRI on my brain. And if that was clear I had to get an angiogram, which is used to see the inside the brain, to double-check it.
“The MRI scan was paid for out of my own pocket to get it done early. I went to a Spire hospital and it came back all clear.
“The problem is that angiograms cost about £4,000 to do privately. However, Chris basically said I was at a lower risk than ever in my life and cleared me so long as I get the angiogram on the NHS.”
Walker, now 28, had already started training with a club and hopes to take to the field with them once the sport resumes.
“I’ve been training since November knowing this was going to happen. I’m hoping it’s made my career longer, and I’ll definitely play as long as I can now. I want people calling me an old git and booing me, telling me to retire!
“Not playing allowed me to do other things and go on holiday with my family in summer. But once that fizzled out, I felt like I’d lost my identity. But now I’m back and as much as it’s a pain in the backside, the coronavirus could be a leveller for me as I’m in the same condition as everyone else and nobody is match fit.”
Walker also has one other goal in mind. He was forced to retire two days before flying out with Wales to the 2017 World Cup. Having had the opportunity of a lifetime snatched from him, he hopes to come full circle and compete in next year’s competition.
“That would obviously be the dream and I’ve already told John Kear he owes me!
I always loved playing internationally for Wales, so I want to get back into that squad.
“I can’t describe how good they’ve been; they’ve paid all my stuff privately. I’ve been head coach of their under-19s squad and if I could get back in the squad I’d be playing with lads I’ve coached, which would be great.”