Rob Burrow is a national legend in the world of rugby league; he played 17 seasons for Leeds Rhinos, represented his country and was renowned for his small stature and ability to dart around a pitch. Now, just two years after his retirement from the sport he is battling the devastating Motor Neurone Disease (MND). At the 2019 Player of the Year awards, a fellow player and close friend Kevin Sinfield noticed that Burrow was slurring his words and almost immediately after Burrow booked to see a specialist. The neurodegenerative disease has quickly grabbed hold of Burrow and just one year on, he relies largely on technology to speak and reluctantly relies on his wife Lindsey for day-to-day care.
Motor Neurone Disease is thought to affect 5000 people in the UK today and unfortunately has no cure. The speed of progression of the disease varies between individuals and can also affect different areas of the body more aggressively. For Rob, the muscles in his throat have been affected the worst and he admits feeling embarrassed by the way he sounds. Thanks to modern technology, a database of words Burrow has spoken in interviews and audio recordings have meant that Rob can use his phone to communicate. This is particularly important to Rob as he wants his three young children to recognise the sound of his thick Yorkshire accent.
Currently, a major focus of research for Motor Neurone Disease is whether high impact sports, like rugby, play any role in the development of the disease. MND has claimed the lives of numerous professional sportsmen: South African rugby player Joost van der Westhuizen died of MND at the age of 45, Dutch footballer Fernando Ricksen passed away at age 43 and rugby union stars Doddie Weir and Stephen Darby are currently battling MND alongside Burrow. During the BBC documentary, Weir communicates that he feels extremely lucky to have a strong rugby community to support them but worries about the people suffering with no support network around them. The number of sportsmen that have and are currently battling the disease leads us to question why some professional sportspeople develop it and some don’t. Could the answer lie within the specific diet or supplements taken by rugby or football players but not by other professionals? However, the documentary conveys a very clear message that Burrow alongside Weir and Darby do not want to put people off sport as it is extremely beneficial to both the mental and physical health of the vast majority of individuals.
Burrow, like many suffering from serious health conditions, is facing an already tough situation during the COVID-19 pandemic. His first hospital visit in several months was on the 17th September 2020 when neurological consultant Dr Agam Jung noticed a dramatic difference in Burrow’s speech and mobility. Burrow has lost most of his ability to swallow, breathe and walk and feels “trapped” inside his own body. Perhaps one of the most devastating elements of MND is the fact that the patient is fully aware of what is happening to them and can do nothing to stop it. The interdisciplinary NHS team caring for Rob is vast, it includes a consultant, specialist nurse, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, wheelchair therapist, speech and language therapist, dietician and palliative care consultant. The positive impact of this is that it reduces the number of hospital visits for Burrow and his care plan can be devised by a multitude of professionals to provide him with the best possible care.
Of course, it is not only Burrow who is impacted by his condition. His wife of 20 years, Lindsey, has become his full-time-carer which is understandably hard for Burrow. He struggles to watch his wife do all of the housework and look after the children who Burrow desperately wishes he could kick a football with. His parents are extremely proud of Burrow’s positive outlook and his attitude towards a terrible situation although at first his mother felt angry and blamed Burrow’s MND on his rugby career. Even though she doesn’t feel this way anymore, she still can’t bring herself to watch rugby which was once a well-loved part of her life. His parents also praise Lindsay on her strength in being by their son’s side throughout his decline and comment on the fact that she is always upbeat and optimistic.
Currently, several charities are battling to raise money for research into MND. There is the MND Association, The Brain Charity and the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation to name a few. Burrow’s close family and friends have certainly played their part in raising funds as they participated in the 3 Peaks Challenge fundraiser and Kevin Sinfield completed a marathon in its honour. Not only does the money raised by these events go toward finding a cure but they crucially contribute to the care and resources available to patients.
I definitely recommend watching this 30-minute documentary on BBC iPlayer. Although difficult to view at times, it opened my eyes to a disease that I only had a brief understanding of previously.