It started as an innocuous injury in a tackle, but it was the beginning of a hellacious battle that left Shaun Lunt asking doctors if he was going to die.
At the end of last year, the Hull Kingston Rovers captain faced the toughest battle of his life after he contracted bacterial meningitis, a severe infection that affects a person’s brain and spinal cord.
Lunt was left hospitalised for almost three weeks, however, meningitis was just the start of his problems.
In fact, issues started several weeks earlier during a game.
“We played Leeds and I went in for a tackle and I felt a crack in my back,” Lunt recalled.
“I felt good afterwards, I had no pins or needles or anything like that so I carried on playing.
“I woke up the next morning and I couldn’t lift my head off my pillow. I could move my arms and feet, but I was scared, although I just thought I had a stiff neck as I remembered that tackle.
“My Mrs had to physically move my head off the pillow and I sort of had to move to get upright. Once I got moving I was OK as I loosened it off.”
However in the weeks that followed, the 31-year-old found his health deteriorating. After returning from France following the Robins’ game against Toulouse, his health spiralled out of control.
“I thought it was just a bug at first,” he said.
“When we came back from France over the weekend I went to two hospitals and they said I just had neck spasms. But by Thursday I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t breathe and talk at the same time, my hands and lips were blue. I was waking up and my bed was like someone had poured a jug of water over me.
“I hate going to hospitals, but my Mrs told me I took myself or she was phoning an ambulance. I went to Pinderfields and they laid me on a bed. They lifted my leg and I nearly shot through the ceiling with pain in my back. He told me there I had bacterial meningitis.
“It sounds daft now but I asked if I was going to die.”
Thankfully, doctors quickly reassured him and began treatment. Following a lumbar puncture, a medical procedure in which a needle is inserted into the spinal canal, most commonly for diagnostic reasons, things looked up. After three days he was told he wasn’t contagious.
But on his sixth day in hospital things took a turn for the worse.
An MRI scan had shown an abscess in his spinal cord.
“It was between two vertebrae pushing on my spinal cord. That’s why I couldn’t move my neck. That’s why I was getting excruciating headaches.
“They believe it developed from the trauma of the tackle. It was right where the crack was.”
Incredibly, Lunt had played three games since the incident occurred, playing in games against Halifax, London and Toulouse.
“We weren’t safe. I had to play. Honestly, if there was no risk of being relegated I wouldn’t have played, but I knew what relegation could do to the club and I didn’t want to experience that again. The fear of relegation carried me through really.”
But that was just the start of the problems. Further tests showed he had sepsis, a serious blood infection that can have fatal consequences.
“They aren’t sure where the sepsis came from, whether it was from the abscess or not.
“But as time went on the sepsis counters were coming down and the abscess was getting smaller. It seemed like I was on the right track.”
After 20 days, he was released from hospital, but that’s when the real challenges started.
Home bound!!! Been a long 3 week but back to the fam 👌🏼👌🏼 pic.twitter.com/nT8qTfp7w3
— Shaun Lunt – Testimonial 2018-19 (@Shaun_Lunt) October 16, 2018
“I got sent home and had a nurse come to mine every morning to give me antibiotics through an IV drip. They put a cannula through my bicep and it stayed in there. I was on a high dose of antibiotics, three tablets four times a day and pain relief.
“Mentally that’s when it hit me. I’ve had operations before and you know you can’t do anything so it doesn’t affect you mentally, but the antibiotics had affected me. I just wanted to lock myself away in a little box and not see anyone. I didn’t even want to see my kids. People were ringing me and I was avoiding the phone. Even now, my memory of events still isn’t great.
“I couldn’t comprehend what had happened. I’d get really anxious and have bouts of depression. That was my life in constant circles for days. I couldn’t sleep at night because I was doing nothing in the day. Any little thing I did, like walk up the stairs, took my breath. That was harder than being in hospital.”
Lunt is now back in training but still on the long road to recovery. He had, at one point, thought his career was over. While in hospital he continued to get agonising pain in his spine that was so severe he was calling for pain relief an hour before he knew the pain would start.
Thankfully things are now looking much brighter, but he accepts he has a long way to go and a lot of hurdles to leap.
“There’s going to be a time when I have to make a tackle, get back into wrestling and run a ball in.
“I feel great now, but I know I’m still a long way away from being myself. I feel great because I was feeling so **** before.
“I’ve got to count my blessings and hope I get back playing. But I’m not even thinking about playing again. In the back of my mind, I can’t wait, but I’m not even considering playing a rugby game right now. If I do, I’ll get frustrated and depressed. I’m just grateful to feel as well as I do. I’ll be back when I’m back. I have plenty of time.
“I’ll do a session and see how I feel the next day. If I do too much, I’ll pull it back a bit. It is trial and error at the moment. Patience isn’t my biggest virtue but it has to be. If I come back too early it could end my career.”
Perhaps the biggest positive to come out of the ordeal is that it has given Lunt a fresh perspective on life.
“My family copped it more than anyone. Especially my wife, brother and sister-in-law, I’m indebted to them really. They were there for me every step of the way. My wife was very tolerant.
“I have a family and rugby doesn’t come close to them. I’ve loved it over all these years but I have bigger priorities now, I have to make sure I can look after them long after rugby and that’s the most important thing.”
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